Lookout by Christine Byl Strange Object | 2023 | 300 pages
Near the beginning of Christine Byl’s Lookout, nine-year-old Cody Kinzler has been goaded by a young neighbor into striking matches, and one singes her shirtsleeve. When her parents find out, her father takes her to a meadow, waters down a perimeter, and lights the grass inside it until waist-high flames come close enough to make her cry and dry her tears. He wants to teach her that “[e]very fire starts small,” but as flames engulf the entire state later that summer, Cody wonders if her father, too, is afraid, even as he tells her that someone in the nearby lookout tower is watching for sparks. What Cody takes from her father’s explicit teaching and, more importantly, from his example—in a place where the land and elements sometimes move in ways beyond even a skilled person’s reckoning—form some of this polyvocal novel’s central questions.
Lookout tells the story of the Kinzler family: parents Josiah and Margaret, daughters Louisa and Cody. They live in western Montana on acreage passed down to Josiah by a mean-spirited, alcoholic father and a mother who took her own life by lying in front of a train. We learn from their friend and neighbor Doyle that both Kinzlers are slightly misplaced in their marriage; Doyle has known them since adolescence and imagined them with different futures.
When Doyle sets the scene of the Kinzlers’ life, he describes teenage Josiah’s situation upon his last parent’s death: “After Hank was buried, Josiah was thoroughly alone, barely a man, with nothing but 30 acres of dry land, a ramshackle house, and the place so deep in him he couldn’t leave.” Doyle details Josiah’s array of practical skills—he’s a crack shot with gun and bow, an expert woodsman, and an all-around good hand. Doyle notes his quiet, humble nature but a forceful sadness too: “It was easier to picture him alone.”
Margaret was a pretty girl from town who had once looked like she was bound for “interesting places” rather than a sometimes-lonely life on a defunct horse ranch. She seems to relish the privacy of her thoughts and the work of homemaking. Louisa is Cody’s kind and slightly wild older sister, a girl who sleeps in, dreams of other places, and transgresses boundaries for the sake of it. Josiah and Cody are alike. They are gentle, independent people profoundly drawn to the outdoors, and through a range of perspectives, Byl unfolds a story that centers on father and daughter: their bond, their inheritances, their relationships, and their evolving sense of self.
I’m about the same age as Cody Kinzler and from adjacent country, and I delighted in Byl’s deft portrayal of the working-class inland West of the 1980s and 90s. Byl’s gift to readers is refusal of stereotype and received language about a place often and easily stereotyped. In the absence of labels for what we think we ought to know about place and people, Byl allows a world of nuance to come to life.
It would have been easy, to name just one example, to amplify the “girly-girl” and “tomboy” dichotomy around sisters Louisa and Cody and mine it for conflict and difference. Instead we see them, in ways large and small, from beginning to end, in league with each other, while going through different versions of girlhood in this family and location. In one memorable chapter, teenage Cody takes the bus to visit Louisa in La Grande for spring break, during which, she quickly learns, Louisa will be having an abortion. While they walk to the clinic at dawn, Cody recalls the story of Louisa’s first period and how it came on a visit to a wealthy girl’s lake house. Although Louisa had been invited to the lake house together with other friends from school, the incident amplified Louisa’s sense of being unwelcome and other. For Cody, Louisa’s life is sometimes a window and other times a mirror, but the sisters seem to regard each other without judgment, maintaining sibling and class solidarity throughout different experiences of gender. I felt their relationship as eerily real, their key scenes together so powerful and familiar that I had to remind myself they didn’t happen to me.
The novel opens during a unprecedently hot, smoky summer, but the notion of climate change hasn’t yet entered popular understanding. The novel takes place just before the internet and the era of cable news, and the characters’ perspective on the world beyond their immediate lives, in Byl’s narration, seems to stem from their lived experience rather than from an imposed vocabulary. The Kinzlers’ mental map outside western Montana seems mostly regional, extending to Missoula and Coeur d’Alene and Spokane, places they visit occasionally and never without thinking about money and how to avoid spending it.
But outside the region, there’s an uncle in San Francisco, where Margaret’s gay brother Michael has made a life apart from the place he grew up. The Kinzlers love Michael, but Margaret comes to realize, too late, that she has feared his way of life.
And queerness, Margaret knows, is not only “out there” but close to home. During a particularly severe bout of depression, Josiah leaves the house and moves to a cabin on the property. It’s a six-minute walk from the house, and he’s still able to fulfill much of his role as husband and father while relieving the pressure that his “torpor” created. Margaret and Josiah don’t understand this as desertion. Although Margaret might not have chosen this domestic arrangement for herself, she decides she can live with it. Josiah left, his internal voice says, in order to “see himself.” And when a younger man, Freddy, improbably finds his way up the road and comes to work with Josiah in the woods, the two begin a romantic partnership that exists honestly, if not exactly openly, in parallel to Josiah’s marriage. It is an arrangement that the characters choose to understand and label in their own ways. The relationship brings Josiah more fully into who he is, but it doesn’t cure him of sadness.
The Kinzlers’ property is no longer a working ranch and never seems to have been much of one, situating the story outside the settler narrative of prosperity generated from productive land. The family improvises ways to get by, with Josiah ultimately honing his craft as a woodsman into barely profitable work as a fine furniture maker. It’s through Josiah’s trade, which eventually becomes Cody’s, that Byl’s abundantly satisfying nature writing finds expression in Lookout.
Byl’s lyrical treatment of the woods never separates nature, people, tools, and relationships. The woods harbor Cody’s wondering about Josiah and Freddy’s relationship and her sudden questions about whether Josiah wanted a son. As Josiah and Cody walk through trees, Josiah looks up the length of their trunks, each “like a road to the sky,” trying to find exactly the one that will find expression in a piece of furniture that only he could have made. At the same time he worries about the shape of Cody’s straight spine, the “bubble” of independence around her, the distance that isolates him and keeps him silent about who he loves, and the danger of living as if you don’t need anyone. Byl writes with intense technical and interpersonal detail—the life of work, mind, and relationships all mingling in compelling intricacies of action, thought, speech, silence, and all that silence contains.
Cody, too, winds up in Josiah’s cabin, where she must face her own questions about moving on, as she has to learn how to keep loving Josiah while figuring out how to outgrow the aloneness that, along with his orientation to work, lives on in her.
Throughout my reading of Lookout, I sensed characters living within a great what now? created by their circumstances, both historical, familial, and personal. For the Kinzlers, the recurrent what now? is a question that has only temporary answers. This isn’t a book in which people make grand mistakes born of profound character flaws, but small, quiet ones that come from conditions they couldn’t help but inherit. As Josiah writes, “I would have been a more contented man if I could have chosen it.” Byl’s treatment of the Kinzlers, the community in which they’re deeply situated, and the land on which they’re living is complex and compassionate, undermining the toxic frontier myths—with their attendant portrayals of gender and family—that feed national ones.
I read this book in a single, sometimes tear-soaked evening. The story is propulsive, but the forward motion comes from Byl’s skillful arrangement of unsettled perspectives rather than from conflict in the classic sense. Ideas and images from the opening chapters—like the small fire that burns a little too close before being extinguished—find satisfying fulfillment in scenes that close the book. It’s fitting that in the end, land and animals have not just moral weight, but consequence.
Jessica E. Johnson writes poetry and nonfiction. She’s the author of the book-length poem Metabolics and the chapbook In Absolutes We Seek Each Other, and is a contributor to the anthology Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, The New Republic, Poetry Northwest, River Teeth, DIAGRAM, Annulet Poetics, The Southeast Review, and Sixth Finch.