Editor's note: "Ruthie Fear" by Maxim Loskutoff is the winner in the Fiction category of the 2021 High Plains Book Awards.
Maxim Loskutoff’s short story collection, "Come West and See" was a co-winner (along with Tom McGuane) for a 2019 High Plains Book Award. Those stories examined the lives of young men struggling in vain attempts to control the environment, women, politics, and ultimately their future.
Loskutoff’s debut novel, "Ruthie Fear," is a 2021 winner in the fiction category. This round, the main character is a young woman also struggling, but trying to find a way to survive her changing environment, toxic masculinity, politics and environmental crisis. As you would expect, the novel is more nuanced, complex and spans a longer time period. It is also one of most powerful and resonant novels of 2020.
Montana’s Bitterroot Valley is the setting, a quickly changing landscape. As wood mills are closing and traditional low-income jobs are disappearing, trophy homes for millionaires and trophy hunts for out-of-state visitors are becoming the new norm. Sound familiar? Ruthie Fear is the protagonist in this contemporary coming-of age story. The story is both a warning of the impending environmental crisis and an omen of class warfare percolating in the American West.
At a very young age, Ruthie sees a bizarre tall feathered creature on spindly legs. But more alarming to Ruthie - and the reader – the creature has no head. Dreams and folklore are an important reoccurring element of the novel, but this vision makes one question Ruthie’s reliability as a narrator. This eerie intrusion into an otherwise realistic novel is the first indication that Loskutoff is willing to take this narrative out of the ordinary realm. The term “eco-disaster” is currently being used to tag this new form of fiction, but it is not an apt description for "Ruthie Fear." My sense is that Loskutoff is using metaphor as a literary form to describe the ominous harbinger of our own carelessness towards the future.
Loskutoff is a brilliant and thoughtful writer, wise enough to not paint characters as either victims or villains. No preaching here. If there is an underlying theme, it’s that the dissolution of moral consciousness and civility is as toxic as the destruction of nature and the environment.
Corby Skinner is the director of The Writer’s Voice and the High Plains BookFest.