‘Site Fidelity’ Explores Why We Fight for the Places We Love
In a new short-story collection by Claire Boyles, we meet characters struggling with family, health troubles, and environmental issues in the West
Site fidelity refers to the tendency in certain animals to return to the same location regularly, sometimes even if that place no longer offers benefits like enough food or protection from predators. The greater sage grouse, for example, remains loyal to its selected seasonal habitats even when they cease to serve its purposes of survival, mating, or raising chicks. This compulsion to return to familiar places runs throughout Site Fidelity, a new collection of short stories by Claire Boyles that offers a sometimes bleak, often funny and warm look at family and sense of place in the West.
The first story nods to site fidelity in literal terms: Norah, an ornithologist, returns to her father’s ranch after he suffers a stroke. She spends much of her time there worrying about the future of the local Gunnison sage grouse population, which has returned to its lek, or mating grounds, on her father’s land for as long as she can remember. Norah wants to get a conservation easement so the birds can keep returning to protected land; her father doesn’t want anyone to know the birds are on their land at all. “The government can’t protect them better than I can,” he tells her. Site fidelity is the source of their unspoken, unresolved tensions between Norah and her father as his health deteriorates. Of course, that’s not just in the ornithological sense. Norah feels stuck in old parental frustrations as she paces her childhood home, unable to communicate with her father like she used to because he lost much of his facility for language. Neither seems to know how to move into new emotional territory.
The characters in each short story tend to have deep, if not affectionate, histories with the places in which they’ve found themselves. Sometimes, these are not literal places but identities they’ve come to inhabit, whether by choice or because everybody else told them that’s who they were. Families, too, are their own sites that characters return to over and over, whether or not they really want to. In “Flood Stories,” the site of return is a cramped cabin that a woman named Lottie shares with her somewhat crotchety mother, who’s always grousing that she’s too flighty or ungrateful. Her mother often tells her the story of a great flood during which she perched with baby Lottie on the branch of a ponderosa pine. “Nothing I did ever contented you, not even saving your life,” she says. In “Sister Agnes Mary in the Spring of 2012,” a longtime nun is starting to have doubts about the laws of the church and whether her prayers are enough to protect her community from fracking. (Fittingly, her convent is just down the street from her childhood home.) But when trouble comes—usually in the form of environmental wrongdoing or health emergencies—Boyles’s protagonists dig their heels in. No one’s messing with their claustrophobic childhood home, their small town where everyone knows too much of everyone’s business!
Boyles, who lives in Colorado, used to be a sustainable farmer, and it’s clear that she is particularly interested in the idea of tending to your own patch of land even when things get difficult. In many stories, Boyles explores the individual’s responsibility for environmental justice. Characters are often given opportunities for rebellion in the face of corporate wrongdoing, and there are many shenanigans in this vein involving bleach, dead fish, and fuel canisters. Site Fidelity doesn’t pretend that individual action offers a heroic fix to systemic problems, but it is interested in exploring how people form an ethos of climate justice and care for their communities and natural resources. Boyles often brings a sense of humor to this work, showing how that ethos can manifest itself alongside all the quirks and inconsistencies of the human brain. A former librarian who drinks and smokes through a cancer diagnosis, for instance, is also known as a feisty advocate against chemical sweeteners. A woman who works for a water treatment facility observes fish dying near a sloppy construction site, but is frustrated to hear that people in her community think it’s the work of Satanic rituals related to a passing comet. In these stories, the motivation to protect children, relatives, and beloved places is always straightforward, but it usually leads down a frustrating path with no clear end.
Boyles has a way of leaving her characters in the lurch at the end of each story. In “Lost Gun, $1,000 Reward, No Questions,” two brothers meet their half-siblings after their absentee father dies in a mining accident, and the half-siblings eventually make off with the brothers’ Prius in Las Vegas. As one brother contemplates calling the cops, the other wryly pulls out a piece of paper they’d been given earlier, containing a baffling sentence that was supposedly their dad’s last will and testament: “The feds don’t need to know nothing about this.” Boyles usually stops at such inflection points—the moment when it becomes truly clear that her characters have landed wherever they’ve landed, and they need to make peace with it. Reading Site Fidelity’s stories feels like a similar experience, sitting with ambiguity and rarely getting any sense of closure. Boyles doesn’t usually go out of her way to make these stories feel hopeful, but instead focuses on the set-your-jaw, grit-your-teeth kind of commitment required to move beyond resignation—with the world we live in, the people who disappoint us, or the situations in which we’ve found ourselves. After a woman unexpectedly gives birth to her son in a state park’s fossil pavilion, she seems to find a moment of peace in the idea. “This baby would be from nowhere, a ghost-town baby… She could not take back any of the decisions that had led her here. This is where she found herself, so this is where he would be born.”