The winner of Ashland Creek Press’ 2015 annual Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature is “The Chief of Rally Tree,” a novel by Pacific Northwest poet Jennifer Boyden. Contest judge Ann Pancake describes it as “inventive, smart, and often hilariously funny.”
Ashland Creek Press co-founder and co-editor Midge Raymond says the company wants books that focus on the environment and taking care of the planet, but a well-written, engaging story is just as important.
“We look mostly for a great story, then we look to see if it falls within our mission of getting people to thinking about the environment on a deeper level,” Raymond said. “This book has a great story, beautiful language. We weren’t surprised to learn after the blind reading period that the author is also a poet.”
Boyden’s award-winning full-length collection of poetry, “The Declarable Future” received accolades for its ability to mirror the interconnectedness of humanity and the world. Boyden is on the faculty of Eastern Oregon University’s low-residency MFA program, and also works for an environmental nonprofit in the San Juan Islands.
She says she completed “The Chief of Rally Tree” over about three years and that it was a joy to write. “Having your obsession have a place to go is really delicious. There’s an aspect of obsession in writing, and a novel gives you the chance to dive into that. I really had a fun time with this book,” she said.
“The Chief of Rally Tree” opens with the main character’s wife disappearing during a research project. The novel is less of a mystery about the wife’s disappearance than it is a kind of coming-of-age story for the adult protagonist.
“This is a character who has never really grown up. He’s exploited other people’s belief that he more than he is, and has received a lot of undeserved benefit,” said Boyden. “This story is his moment to become the person that people believe he is, and to rise to the expectation. He’s sort of an inadvertent hero.”
A big idea in the novel, Boyden says, is the issue of identity and what it becomes when we open it to collective definition. “We live in a very collectively designed culture, that includes what we are willing to believe in terms of our eco-consciousness and how we can be open to our own knowledge of who we are,” Boyden said.
The novel also explores connections within the world. “I’m really interested in voices that we can’t quite hear, but that exist in the world anyway, like the voices of roots, and the voices of leaves,” said Boyden. “A variety of things in the world are talking to us, and the job of the writer is to hear those voices,” said Boyden.
The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature recognizes literature that focuses on giving back to the environment, working within nature and taking care of the planet. “There’s a lot of nonfiction out there, but it is so hard to read. It’s depressing and overwhelming. We like books that get people looking at this issue in a different way, and that is exactly what Jennifer Boyden’s book does,” says Raymond.
The annual award contest is open to unpublished, full-length prose manuscripts, including novels, memoirs, short story collections and essay collections. For more information and submission guidelines, visit SiskiyouPrize.com. The reading period for the third annual Siskiyou Prize will open early summer, with a winner announced at the end of the year. The winner receives a cash award of $1,000, a four-week residency at the PLAYA creative retreat near Summer Lake, and an offer of publication by Ashland Creek Press.
Ashland Creek Press will publish Boyden’s novel in early to mid-2017. For more information, visit AshlandCreekPress.com. Raymond expects that each reader will naturally have a variety of responses to the book, “‘The Chief of Rally Tree’ will not be easily forgotten. This is a beautiful novel that will get you thinking about our natural world. I’m eager to see how people respond to it,” said Raymond.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org