The Middle of SomewhereThe Middle of Somewhere by Sonja Yoerg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Middle of Somewhere paints a dazzling, realistic picture of backpacking through Yosemite along the John Muir Trail—a three-week, 220-mile undertaking. Sonja Yoerg reminds us that out in the wilderness, there’s no room for lies or secrets. One's soul is bared. Our human need for one another—both physically and emotionally—is raw, unmasked by the distraction of technological gizmos or the false security afforded by our so-called civilization. One tender and poetic line pretty much sums it up: "She and Dante, alone in the middle of nowhere, with the truth." Liz and Dante recognize that they must put their differences aside in favor of survival, but will their hearts and bodies remain intact at the end of this adventure?

Liz is a different sort of woman: serious, handy, curious, independent. But she is harboring two big secrets—one pertaining to her relationship with Dante and the other involving her deceased husband, Gabriel. My biggest criticism is that Liz’s back story isn’t always well-woven into the present-day action and often reads like an “information dump.” My second quibble is that I grew impatient with her fear of thunderstorms, which I found gratuitous given how she breaks the “helpless female” mold in so many other ways. But when I got to that harrowing scene along a treacherous mountaineering trail in the middle of a thunderstorm, with lighting striking all around (“A deafening crack, resounding so close it trembled through the ground and up through the soles of Liz’s boots”), that changed my mind in a hurry!

Indeed, the depictions of this laborious trek are so convincing, I suffered the same fatigue and tedium I would have if I were actually hiking alongside Liz and Dante. Although the detailed descriptions can grow a little tiresome, they are central to the story. The natural setting lays the groundwork for events to follow. The Middle of Somewhere artfully engages the reader’s senses and emotions for better or worse, while Liz carries the full weight of her secrets in that leaden backpack. And rather than lighten her load when she—finally, slowly, and painfully—confesses, the realistic fallout is palpable and contaminates the remainder of their journey like radioactive material. Combined with the tension created by the menacing and creepy Root brothers (excellent, if a bit fantastic), we worry for Liz’s physical and mental well-being the entire way.

I think the comparison to Deliverance is fitting with one big difference: The Middle of Somewhere interweaves elements of danger and suspense into a tale of personal discovery within the context of a troubled relationship. The result is gripping and scary! Without revealing any spoilers too blatantly, this book's big strength is the understated moral dilemma faced by Liz throughout her journey: What right, if any, does a man have to know that a woman has conceived his child? What say, if any, ought he have in deciding the outcome of that pregnancy? As Liz realizes too late, while women through biological imperative have the ultimate say, this power is not to be wielded lightly or impulsively. And if we make that mistake, do we still deserve forgiveness and love? For his part, Dante grapples with an equally vexing and related question: Under these harsh, extenuating conditions, what obligation does a man have to “stick by” the woman who has so hurt and betrayed him?

Liz and Dante must face these daunting emotional challenges along with the often treacherous terrain. Throughout their arduous three-week voyage, the ever-changing trail is an apt outer symbol of their shared-yet-parallel inner journeys.

Story endings are tricky, and difficult to “nail.” Personally, I found the ending to be a bit of a quick "wrap-up" job that included a rather implausible explanation of who the Root brothers were and what they were doing on that trail. Other critical events—like Liz’s injury—likewise left me scratching my head. (How could she keep on hiking, much less carry her heavy pack, after that happened?) But in the end, despite its flaws, The Middle of Somewhere shines like “the nearly full moon [that] made the river run silver.” A highly emotional, gut-wrenching and powerful work, “exciting” doesn’t begin to describe some of its scenes. Meanwhile, a difficult process of personal growth and self-discovery cement the two main characters’ love for one another in a way that gives this story substance and sticking power. Although far from “perfect,” The Middle of Somewhere had me hooked. What more can we ask of an author?

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