Longlisted, 2018 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic
(Young Adult Fiction)
Seventeen-year-old Camden splits her time between her father, a minor rock star, and her mom, a scruffy “hardware geek” who designs and implements temporary and sustainable power systems and satellite linkups for off-grid music and art festivals, tree-sits, and attends gatherings of alternative healers. Lark, Camden’s father, provides her with brand-name jeans, running shoes, and makeup, while her mother’s world is populated by anarchists, freaks, geeks, and hippies. Naturally, Camden prefers staying with her dad and going to the mall with his credit card and her best friend, but one summer, when Lark is recording a new album, Camden accompanies her mother, Laureen, to a healing camp on a mountain in Northern California. After their arrival, Laureen heads to San Francisco, ostensibly to find her lover, but she never comes back. Alone, penniless, and without much in the way of camping skills, Camden withdraws. Things begin to look up when she is befriended by Skinny, a young man in charge of the security detail at the camp who knew her mother as a child. The summer ends and Camden heads back to Toronto to find her dad, and it’s only there that she learns Laureen’s disappearance is tied, unexpectedly, to the secrets Skinny tried to keep from her for months, until, finally, he couldn’t.
“A beautifully sustained and compassionate book about the lost, written in the voice of Camden, a young girl who is, predictably rather than suddenly, abandoned in a healing “camp” halfway up a Mountain in California. Intelligent and wary, she does not ask for sympathy or let anyone, including the reader, near–her voice is cool, sarcastic and resigned, though Ursula Pflug’s mastery gives us the continuous sense of what is not said. This is not a novel of the expected. In the stagnant daily routines on the Mountain (mud and latrines and wet clothes form a large part), the isolation of each from each, the loss of family and attempts to create new bonds however fragile, there is a continuous sense of this book’s being written in the shadow of real migrant camps. This is a novel that does not allow us to turn away.”
—Heather Spears, author of The Strong Box
“A delicate, bittersweet story full of big ideas, told in sumi-e brushstrokes set against a large-scale canvas, from master Canadian fantasist Ursula Pflug.”
—Candas Jane Dorsey, author of A Paradigm of Earth
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Mountain by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Ottawa Review of Books – September 1, 2018
Ostensibly a work of young adult fiction, Mountain is a wonderful novel for all ages. Pflug, a stalwart in Canadian fiction, shines in this powerful narrative of a teenage girl on the brink of estrangement from her mother.
Seventeen-year-old Camden is the product of the failed marriage of Lark, a minor rock star, and Laureen, a new-age environmentalist and computer geek. For her summer vacation, Camden is forced to leave behind her comfortable Toronto lifestyle with Lark to accompany Laureen on a road trip from Vancouver to California. There, Laureen has a gig setting up the solar power supply and satellite internet connections for a month-long gathering of spiritual and personal healing.
After getting things up and running, Laureen heads off alone on a short trip to San Francisco to purchase some IT components. Camden believes that her mother has really left to see her lover, a man she despises and for good reason.
Laureen’s trip takes longer than planned, and Camden finds herself increasingly feeling abandoned. Left with little money and possessing few camping skills, she turns for support to her mother’s friend, Skinny, who is in charge of camp security. While Camden is also physically attracted to the young man, she is irked that Laureen and Skinny are so tight. At first, she assumes that Skinny is just another of her mother’s ex-lovers but soon finds that his connection to Laureen is not at all sexual but something much more significant. As Camden becomes increasingly concerned that her mother has abandoned her, she discovers that she and Skinny share a dark secret.
The beauty of Pflug’s writing is her ability to deliver a narrative which juxtaposes the consumer-driven frivolity of teenagers with their vulnerabilities to harm caused by adults around them. In an age where abuse of any kind is decried in very public spaces with strident calls for draconian measures, Mountain is about healing, not punishment. And in it, we are directed to the importance of victims helping other victims to heal.
There are few writers who can draw their readers into the personae of their characters as eloquently as Ursula Pflug. Mountain is a novel that leaves no room for detached bystanders. It sweeps you up and infuses you with the emotions of its young protagonist and in the end, leaves you enmeshed in her sorrow.
Mountain is published by Inanna Publications.
Mountain by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by Heidi Henkenhaf
CM Magazine Volume XXIV Number 24 – February 23, 2018
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
DAY TEN. No Laureen. I surreptitiously used a little of the big boxes of biodegradable laundry detergent someone left beside the aptly named Laundry Rocks. For all I know some Tribe person left them there, to deter newbies from washing their underwear with Tide back at the spring. Even I know better than that.
I guess Mom taught me more than she thought she did. If she doesn’t come back tomorrow, I’ll email Lark and ask him what to do. I’ll probably get an automated reply, “Out of Office”.
Ursula Pflug’s YA novel Mountain is a quick and enjoyable read that offers a wonderful distraction from screen time, unless you are reading the ebook format.
Many young adult readers will be able to relate to Camden’s dual life as she shares her time between the very different worlds of her father and her mother; but, perhaps few will experience the extreme differences in values and lifestyle between the two households. Camden’s father is a musician and provides her with an above average lifestyle with resources for hanging out with friends and shopping at the mall. Her mother is much more cash-strapped and has a no frills lifestyle. Both parents are committed to their careers and perhaps naïve to how this focus has left their daughter vulnerable in both these circumstances.
The reader is given the sense that Camden’s current adventure is simply another in a life long pattern. When Camden is in her mother’s custody, she ends up being abandoned at a healing camp on a mountain in the middle of nowhere North California. Although she is surrounded by many, she must dig deep both physically and emotionally to look after herself while waiting for her mother’s return. As time passes and Camden’s circumstances deteriorate, all attempts to contact her father in Toronto for backup fail. The absence of both parents creates the adventure of Camden’s story on the mountain.
I highly recommend this book because many young adults can relate to the dual life of sharing their time between co parenting households and the challenges this can create. This story takes the reader on a journey they will hopefully never have to live but makes them think. Mountain would be a good addition to public and school libraries as a powerful adventure and a coming of age story with a strong female protagonist.
Heidi Henkenhaf is a librarian at the Vancouver Public Library.
Mountain by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
Tangent – December 26, 2017
The speculative content of this novella is subtle. Small hints reveal that it takes place in the near future, and that modern technological society is slowly falling apart. There is no sudden apocalypse, but it becomes apparent that large numbers of people have to live as squatters in abandoned buildings or on public land. Certain events seem fantastic, giving this story the feeling of magic realism.
The narrator is a teenage girl, the daughter of divorced parents. Her father, who does not appear until the end, is a successful musician. With him, she leads a life of credit cards and shopping malls. Her mother travels to communal gatherings, where she uses her technical skills to help those who live there survive off the land with do-it-yourself technology. During one such excursion, she leaves her daughter behind, promising to return in a few days. While the daughter waits, she becomes friends with a boy who has secrets, which remain unrevealed until halfway through the novella. She also records the stories of other young people who have come to the gathering. (These narrations incorporate writings that the author published previously.) Some of these stories are realistic, while others are fantasy. At the end, the narrator finds out what happened to her mother, and matures from adolescence to adulthood.
This is a quiet story, with futuristic and magical details far in the background. It seems intended for young adults, although it contains themes that are not appropriate for children. Readers seeking a thoughtful work of literature with believable characters, written in a simple but elegant style, are sure to be pleased.
Mountain by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by Lesley Little
Resource Links – February 2018
It is the juxtaposition of Camden’s developing independence and the chronicle of the healing camp that give the story its singular point of view. Camden finds more than just herself while waiting for her mother and Skinny, the ageless and almost sexless male who is her sort-of mentor at the camp who gives her the time and space to question what is universally important as opposed to what is simply pertinent to the situation.
Camden’s mother never returns. Much later, it is determined she was murdered by the lover who molested Camden. The menace of sexual predation is an underlying theme here; it impacts the majority of the people Camden meets. In two of the stories that Camden provides, young women are constantly navigating all manner of predation either through alliances or avoidance but it is always part of any decision they make. Camden has the luxury of telling her mother, even though she initially feels her mother doesn’t believe her. Skinny, too, has been traumatized by predatory sex to the point where he avoids it altogether, much to Camden’s chagrin.
What Camden learns from Skinny is how much her mother did love her and that wholeness is just that.
She returns to Toronto – on her own – and re-establishes her life on more balanced terms, using her independence to pursue studies online and passing the lessons learned from the mountain healing camp on to her peers. She also reconnects with her father more as a casual friend than a parent, and without bitterness. She has learned to let it go.
This is Ursula Pflug’s first YA novel. She is an award-winning short story writer, speculative fiction author, and editor. She lives in Norwood, Ontario.
Thematic Links: Communes; Family Life; Divorce; Self-reliance
Mountain by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by James Fisher, Miramichi Reader
Guest Review for Consumed by Ink – June 26 2017
Mountain is a novel (but at only 98 pages, more of a novella) that tells the story of seventeen-year-old Camden O’Connor, a girl who lives in two worlds due to her parents’ separation. Her father Lark is a minor rock star based out of Toronto. When with her Dad, she is the typically spoiled city girl with all-access to her father’s credit cards. Life with her mother Laureen is decidedly different: she is a member of “The Tribe” a nomadic collective community that lives off the grid (for the most part) along the west coast and elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada. Laureen is a self-proclaimed “hardware geek” and it is her main responsibility to set up Internet access for the community. This is where Mountain begins: in Northern California during the spring thaw, the snow is melting and the ground is thawing, giving the area of the encampment a Woodstockian vibe. Everything is either wet or muddy or both. In a few days, Laureen leaves Camden at the camp to go to San Francisco pressing a $50 bill in her hand (“not that you’ll need it; I’ll only be gone overnight”) and is gone.
On her own, and with no way to charge her phone or even be able to use it if she could, Camden’s outlook on life outside the city slowly begins to change:
Brown and white and blue: the colours of spring before the snow melts. As always, the media fast made everything seem flat and dull. I knew from experience this would pass, that in a day or two nature would be a better content provider than my phone ever did.
Camden is befriended by Skinny, the young man responsible for camp security and a general jack-of-all-trades. For Skinny, like Laureen, The Tribe has been a way of life for years now.
“Every year the rest of North America gets more like the life I’ve known from day one.”
“It hasn’t been such a bad life has it?” I asked.
“I don’t have anything to compare it too,” he said and abruptly got up and left.
Not much of a mall rat ever, I guess. That would be one difference between us. So he’s like me, or one side of me, only more so.
The spiritual relationship between Camden and Skinny slowly unfolds as she awaits her mother’s return, possibly with her boyfriend Peter, a man neither Camden or Skinny have much use for. Camden begins to keep a journal and even interviews some of the residents to get their background stories. It is through this project and her talks with Skinny that she comes to understand herself and start her own healing process, eventually carrying what she learns back to the city.
Mountain is a short, but captivating read. It is aimed at the young adult reader (no sex, occasional profanity) and I found it most interesting once I understood the culture of The Tribe. The main characters are likeable, and the backdrop of the mountains and nature, in general, give Mountain a healing and meditative aspect uniquely its own. For such a short work, Mountain produces an impact of disproportionate size.