BOSTON — MARCHLANDS
By Karla Kuban
272 pp., $23
By Frank Manley
Coffee House Press
210 pp., $19.95
What's it like to be 15 years old, living on a 1,000-acre sheep ranch in Wyoming during the Vietnam War with your unstable, alcoholic mother and four Mexican ranch hands? What's it like to wonder why your father left your family 11 years ago and hasn't been heard from since?
With simple, spare prose, Karla Kuban shows us what it's like in her affecting first novel, Marchlands. Sophie Behr, who narrates the story, is part woman and part child. She keeps an uneasy distance from her mother, who is dependent on but critical of her daughter.
Sophie's closest companion is her horse, Pablo, and her affection for the land she's grown up on is deep. But she's also secretly pregnant by one of the farm workers. While she is certain she will keep her unborn baby - and that she will be a different kind of parent from her own - she is uncertain whether she loves the baby's father as she should.
Like many others her age, Sophie swings between self-assurance and doubt.
"Your old lady's one cracker shy of a box," Sophie's friend Edwina tells her. " 'Everyone is,' I say. I'm embarrassed that she knows this about my mother. 'Sometimes I want to strangle my old man,' she says. 'We're all a little weird from time to time,' I say. I hesitate but ask in a moment of courage: 'What do you think of me?' She thinks for a minute. 'I think you're unconquerable.' "
That Sophie refuses to be defeated - her unconquerableness - is what makes this disturbing story uplifting in the end. When her mother learns of her pregnancy and reacts spitefully, Sophie sets out with Edwina to find her father. What she discovers is a troubled man full of regrets, who, when he is taking drugs, also is frighteningly violent. Sophie takes refuge with her grandmother in Chicago, and it is there she has her baby.
Kuban does not provide easy answers, but neither does she overdramatize Sophie's extraordinary circumstances. At 16, Sophie returns to the ranch with her new daughter after learning her mother has slipped into insanity. She takes charge because she has to, even though, as she admits, "Sixteen is a young age to try and understand everything."
Yet clearly Kuban understands her character well - her confusion, her strengths, her passions. As Demetrio, the father of Sophie's baby, tells her, "It is not important for you to understand everything. What do you feel in your heart?"
What one young boy, on the verge of turning 13, feels about his father and his future is at the heart of Frank Manley's first novel, The Cockfighter. Even more than Kuban, Manley uses words sparingly, so much so that the novel reads like a short story, with the action taking place over the course of one day and night somewhere in the rural South.
Sonny Cantrell has been given an opportunity he's been waiting for: to "handle" a fighting champion cock at a derby. It's his chance to prove himself a man - a man like his tough, foul-mouthed father, Jake, owner of the Snake Nation Cock Farm.
"He loved his daddy," the narrator writes. "Ever since a few months ago, when his daddy started paying attention to him, he loved him more than he loved anything, except Lion. It was as though his daddy was waiting for him to grow up." Lion is the name the boy has given to the champion cock, despite his father's sharp warnings not to treat the rooster like a pet.
The boy is so attached to Lion that he sneaks out of bed at night to stand by his cage and watch him sleep. Similarly, Sonny's gentle, beleaguered mother, Lily, loves her son fiercely and grieves for the boy she's on the verge of losing. "She didn't know when she was first married that it would turn out to be like this. She didn't know that if she had a boy and he lived to grow up, her husband would come and take him away from her, and by the time he was fifteen or sixteen, she wouldn't be able to tell them apart."
But events at the big cockfight change all that. Over the course of the gory fight and what follows, Sonny realizes he doesn't want to emulate his father and couldn't if he tried.
The problem with this story, however, is that the boy's epiphany happens too fast, too drastically. And the shocking ending makes it that much more unbelievable.
Both Kuban and Manley have written ambitious, disturbing coming-of-age tales, suggesting that teenage woes such as abusive parents, drugs, and pregnancy aren't confined to large urban areas. But Kuban is more successful in portraying the changes a young person goes through on the sometimes harrowing journey into adulthood.
* Suzanne MacLachlan is a freelance writer living in Boston.