Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Spirit Bird’ |

Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Spirit Bird’

by Andrew Travers


‘The Spirit Bird’

Kent Nelson

318 pages, $24.95

University of Pittsburgh Press

“The Hotel Glitter,” one of 14 stories in Kent Nelson’s powerful new collection, should be required reading for anyone living in a resort community. It’s a story about Eva, a single mother from Mexico, living in Montrose and commuting 90 minutes a day before dawn — with other immigrants — to work in a hotel spa in Mountain Village, the glitzy ski destination above Telluride.

The haves-and-have-nots narrative is maybe unsurprising, and the scene of self-satisfied, rich white people at play among poor brown people at work will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time among the pleasure-seeking crowds in our mountains. But the story is remarkable in its subtle characterization of Eva. Nelson allows her desperation to creep in around the edges of the story, in what ends up being a devastating portrait of ski-resort culture.

The title story in “The Spirit Bird” follows a woman on a birding trip to Alaska in pursuit of a rare sighting. She is among many birders in the book, which is aflutter with birds and those who pursue them. Nelson, who lives in Ouray and is an accomplished birder himself, writes well about birds. Like Jim Harrison in his work, Nelson doesn’t overwhelm the reader with ornithological detail, instead using birds and birdwatching as an effective tool to flesh out characters and themes.

Nelson’s protagonists all cast shadows of loneliness, which follow them throughout these stories. In his plainly told tales, disconnection is among his primary concerns — the ways that class or cultural differences, or personal demons or family traumas, can push people apart.

The book won the 2014 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, which annually awards a short-story writer with $15,000 and publication by University of Pittsburgh Press. Each year, a guest judge selects the winners from submitted manuscripts. This year’s judge was “Snow Falling on Cedars” author David Guterson, who selected “The Spirit Bird” from 350 entires.

It’s a well-deserved recognition for an author we in Colorado should be proud to call our own.

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