Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Unicorn Mountain

Michael Bishop
Completed 3/14/2016, reviewed 3/14/2016
4 stars

“Unicorn Mountain” falls under the category of fantasy.  I would call it rural fantasy (as opposed to urban fantasy) because it deals with the gritty reality of life in a rural setting with some magical elements woven through.  The gritty realities are AIDS, circa 1988, when life expectancy was low and quality of life was even lower, the plight of Native Americans and their life on reservations, and a divorced Anglo woman running a ranch in rural Colorado on her own.  All three of these threads come together in a pretty powerful story surrounding the appearance and plight of unicorns.  It’s no wonder the book won the Mythopoeic Award in 1989.  I found the book engrossing and satisfying even though it deals with the homophobia, sexism, and racism of thirty years ago.  I’d like to think we’ve made some headway on all three fronts, but it’s hard knowing that a lot of it still exists and is finding a loud voice in the politics of 2016. 

The story is about Libby, a divorced ranch owner who takes in Bo, her gay ex-cousin-in-law who is dying of AIDS with Karposi’s sarcoma.  She has a Native American ranch hand, Sam, with an estranged daughter, Paisley, who seems to be on the verge of becoming a shaman for her Ute tribe.  Above the ranch there is a herd of unicorns that seem to have appeared from another dimension.  The unicorns are dying from their own illness, something resembling the KS that is afflicting Bo.  Together they try to find a way to heal unicorns, as well has heal the relationships between them all.

Reading the book was hard, but I don’t mean the writing.  It takes place in an era of fear and persecution, when AIDS was an instant death sentence and there were nearly no drugs to provide the longer, higher quality of life that Persons with AIDS have today, assuming they have the insurance to pay for the drugs.  Bishop had extensive interviews with a PWA, and it shows in how well he captures the fear and dread of the disease, the myriad of reactions from the supporting characters, and their subtle and not-so-subtle homophobia.  Some of the homophobic dialogue is so accurate, it’s cringe-worthy.

The book is actually written pretty well.  It has the feel of a standard contemporary novel, not too prosy, not to terse. The characters are very strong.    Despite almost all of them being sarcastic and impatient, I liked them and was rooting for them.  Bo specifically reminded me of a number of people in my past who had a quick sharp wit.  Sam was also a really well drawn character, full of the despair of having been estranged from his daughter for so long.  Paisley and Libby were both tough and self-made.

In a way, the unicorns didn’t even have to be in the story.  The characters were that good.  But they provided a not so subtle metaphor for PWAs, as well as a totem of rebirth and strength for the Native Americans, and plot for the main characters to rally around.  Bishop did a great job coming up with his own mythology for them and it’s easy to see the appeal to the Mythopoeic voters.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It is a powerful reminder of a terrible time in our recent history, of how badly we treated each other.  Even though the specifics are a bit dated, I think it is relevant to the culture of hate that seems to be on the rise this year.  

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