Noe Valley Voice October 2007

After Eden

From the novel by Valerie Miner

Noe Street author Valerie Miner has always been interested in what she calls "the impact of geographical frontier on character." And many of her 13 books have focused on love and idealism, and how they're tested by change.

Her latest novel, After Eden, is no exception. Published in April by the University of Oklahoma Press, it is the story of Emily Adams, a city planner from Chicago who finds herself staying on at her summer cabin in coastal California after she learns of the sudden death of her long-term partner, Salerno. "One of the novel's themes is the contemplation of the search for home and how one person's claim on it can cause another person to feel invaded," says Miner.

The story also deals with the clash between loggers and environmentalists, and with native Californians and the migrant workers who work the lush agricultural land of MacKenzie Valley (read Mendocino).

Miner, a professor of English and feminist studies as well as an artist-in-residence at Stanford University, took inspiration from a real-life cabin in Mendocino, one in which she has stayed with her partner on numerous occasions over the past 26 years. After Eden was also inspired by John Milton's classic epic poem Paradise Lost, itself a reinterpretation of the Bible's book of Genesis.

"I fiddled with a lot of things," Miner says with a smile. "The arc angels are gay male lovers. Adam and Eve are two women. And the serpent is a garden hose."

She also says that fire is the novel's central metaphor. "Fire is cultivated to heat homes and cook food and prepare the land for crops. But it can also destroy, and the valley in the book is vulnerable to conflagration."

As Emily grieves for Salerno, Miner says, she also comes to understand the complexities of the community she has only ever stayed in as a seasonal resident until now.

Miner herself is learning to appreciate the complexities of Noe Valley, her home of three years. "I love the sense of neighborhood here. I love the farmers' market, and am there every Saturday. I really like my neighbors--they're supportive and friendly but non-intrusive," she says.

Many of Miner's friends and neighbors will be at the Duboce Park Café, 2 Sanchez Street, on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at 6:30 p.m., when she will read from After Eden and discuss writing in general.

The book will be available there, as well as at Cover to Cover Booksellers and Phoenix Books and Records in Noe Valley. To learn more about Valerie Miner's work, visit her web site at Meanwhile, an excerpt from the first chapter of After Eden appears below.

--Olivia Boler

from the novel

After Eden


Near the turn of the twenty-first century

She was determined to arrive before dark. Nine hours driving from Somewhere, Nevada, and she certainly wasn't going to stop now. Emily stretched her neck from side to side and took a long breath of warm California evening. Still some green in the land. The ground was a deep golden color, which, she knew, would grow paler and paler throughout the summer until the tall grass itself seemed a mirage.

Phoenix, slumped in the passenger's seat, barked halfheartedly as Emily passed another car. She reached over, scratching the dog's furry blond ears. ''Home,'' she whispered, ''you'll be home tonight, girl.''

It had been a hectic year in Chicago, and as much as she loved her job she needed to settle into the cabin, prepare it for Salerno's arrival. A refugee racing for the border, Emily stepped on her accelerator, concentrating on the road ahead. If she didn't get stuck behind too many lumber trucks or RVs, she'd make it to Fairburn by six forty-five. And home a little after seven. With an hour of light to spare.

Home. She had said home. Thought home. Felt home. For so many years Beulah Ranch had been Salerno's wacky dream. When Salerno found the land with her three friends Angela, Virginia, and Ruth, Emily had pretended not to think much about it. A good place to camp on spring weekends and maybe five to ten days in the summer. But during the last decade, while building their ever-unfinished cabin, and especially since they moved from the Bay Area to Chicago, Emily had come to regard this rough cottage in the coastal range first as an indulgence, then a sanctuary.

This highway between Lawnston and Jerseydale was the curviest bit of the whole six-day journey and she had to concentrate on steering, although her attention was drawn by discreet exits onto small dirt roads. People cherished privacy here, wanted to be alone with their families and cattle and sheep in their hidden edens. In town, of course, they were quite sociable. Out toward the east, maybe as far as Ukiah, rose feathers of smoke. She hoped this was a controlled burn, not a wildfire. The live oak trees shone brilliantly in the mid-June evening. Prairie-like purple grasses swam in the early evening breeze as schools of tiny daisies floated over the hills.

Here, seasons felt more subtle than in the Midwest, where the world went white for five months, then muddy for weeks before the commencement of summer's terrible used-car green. Her Chicago friends called her a California chauvinist. She assured them that she loved the Illinois autumn--the crisp air, the trees turning somersaults of color around their grand lake.

Now Emily breathed in a sense of well-being. Her body felt more natural in Northern California. Oh, she didn't believe in any sentimental harmony. But she did feel less adversarial where she didn't have to fight for warmth or clean air. Where life pulsed more slowly, as the green hills toasted, new wildflowers emerged and exited, every summer week.

''Welcome to the MacKenzie Valley,'' a simple wooden sign on the side of the highway.

Her solitude ending, Emily reflected on the peaceful ride with her dog across the country. The drive had been slower than the usual summer pilgrimage with Salerno. She had taken a day off to hike in the Tetons. And she had loved listening to her book tapes, especially to Paradise Lost for the last two days. Her job as a city planner was a way to do something and earn a living from it, too. But she would die if she weren't in the middle of a good book. She had always relished Milton's language, the fabulous imagery of the poem, Lucifer's dramatic haughtiness and God's wild rages. During the ride, she had also played a couple of Salerno's solo CDs, but the damn dog whined so mournfully that she had to pack them away.

What a different trip this would have been with Salerno beside her--less predictable, less efficient, more playful. Salerno courted adventure, reaped mishap: a tire blown because of a detour to a beautiful but unsurfaced country road, just for a glimpse of rural beauty. A gas tank gone empty because, while Emily had napped, Salerno had tried to make the extra distance to surprise her partner. After fifteen years, she still believed Emily liked surprises.

Now Emily had to prepare for human encounter. For that particular country society where you ran into your doctor at the farmers' market and the haircutter was in your yoga class; where the bookshop doubled as office supply store, fax dispensary, photocopying facility; where you picked up your UPS parcels at Green's Hardware Store. Most cultural events were held in the Valley Community Hall between Montero and Fairburn--everything from Veterans of Foreign Wars dinners to Cinco de Mayo festivities to benefits for the funky community radio station.

Was it better to live in a place where everyone was intimate with everyone else's doings or among city folk who prized anonymity? Odd how she had more privacy in Chicago. People left you alone--gave you space--avoided talking to condo neighbors in the elevator or people seated next to them on the El. Attitudes about courtesy and safety were the reverse here in the country, where it was an affront not to greet, not to chat, not to remember the son had been ill, the horse in foal. Sometimes Chicago felt quieter than the Valley. The noise of buses and drill hammers and car alarms and cellular phones merged into an indistinguishable, if not soothing, blur of sound. Here in the Valley she recognized particular voices. Mechanical sounds were unusual enough to be intrusive. The birds were also distinctive, distracting. (Birds in Chicago: of course they saw birds in Chicago--pigeons, gulls, and those small black-brown-dark birds, what was wrong with her?) Here she was alert for kites and ospreys and turkey vultures and blue herons and jays and red-winged blackbirds and egrets and those splendid owls. Here she awoke at sunrise and waited at day's end for sunset. Chicago had the more rigorous climate, but you just bundled up and got through it, especially in winter, trying to ignore the chilled difference between 15 degrees and ­5 degrees. In the Valley she always felt the weather, reached after the weather. The soft damp morning fog from the coast. The dry oven heat of August midafternoons. The moist reprieve of evening. These two lives--in the northern city and the western valley--summoned different bodies, different personalities. Was her California self reconstructed yet? Was she ready?


From After Eden, by Valerie Miner. Copyright ©2007 by Valerie Miner. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. The book may be ordered through the website or by calling 1-800-627-7377.