Rebecca Kauffman’s debut novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, begins with a short prologue, a story unrelated to the main cast of characters. In this haunting tale shared among the Ojibwa tribe of North Dakota, two brothers go for a swim in a murky pond. The younger boy is bitten by poisonous water moccasin snakes and later dies. In tribal lore, he becomes a spirit with transformative and healing powers; this story is repeated from neighbor to neighbor, from parent to child.
Then the children will retell the story to one another. They feel something different in each retelling. They are learning that sometimes it takes a thousand voices to tell one story.
This idea sets the tone for Kauffman’s novel, a series of loosely related stories told in multiple perspectives that consider intangible phenomena such as intuition, fate, and the power of memory. We meet Kauffman’s main character, Tracy, when she is a troubled ten-year-old visiting her father Marty over summer vacation. Marty and his girlfriend, April, live in a ramshackle place and pass their days mostly drinking and watching television. Marty also spends time boating on the nearby pond—a dirty, odorous body of water much like the lethal one in the prologue. Questionable bodies of water appear throughout the novel, implying danger and the unknown; Tracy hasn’t been taught to swim. She’s a curious, somewhat troubled child who struts around in rain boots and a yellow bikini top and relentlessly asks questions. She’s called “Mouse” by her father, lovingly, and by April, disparagingly. April is less-than-pleased by this incursion into their lives. The story culminates when she gives Marty an ultimatum (“Me or the Mouse” is the chapter’s title) and he arranges for Tracy to return home to her mother. This decision will affect the characters throughout the rest of novel.
Tracy is a shining example of Kauffman’s masterful characterizations. We follow her changes and phases: as the teenager acting out at a neighborhood sleepover, as the obnoxious relative who disrupts a cousin’s romantic night, as the thirty-something restaurant hostess who seduces a younger coworker, Greenie. Their on-again-off-again relationship stretches over several stories; an overall sense of striving for human connection tinges other stories as well. Kauffman evokes our empathy for each character, even those who seem self-sabotaging. Tracy can be misguided and destructive in her behavior, but we sympathize with her isolation and loneliness even when it seems well-deserved.
Tracy cherishes a gift from her father, a gold bracelet he sends for her thirteenth birthday. It’s the one thing that proves his regard and she brags about it, and him, to whomever will listen. The realness of the bracelet comes to symbolize her hopes for what their relationship could be but isn’t, while Marty remains oblivious to her needs.
In the past, when he’d send her jewelry, she’d always been so concerned with whether or not it was real gold, and he’d never bothered to check.
In fact, Marty scavenged the jewelry from the beach with his metal detector. Over the years, he accumulates bits and pieces, never knowing the true worth of his collection. In a chapter titled “Cash For Gold,” he finally turns in the items to have something to give Tracy—too little, and too late. After a lifetime of neglecting his daughter, Marty makes some observations about his cancer diagnosis that apply equally to his emotions:
How little you could actually know about the body you’ve lived in for your whole life, how wrong you could be about your own insides.
Kauffman’s prose is spare and vivid. She knows just the right details to bring a place or a person to life. It’s fun to anticipate the connections among characters from story to story, and to watch Tracy realize how the relationship with her father has colored her choices. Many of the settings for these stories are broken towns, with crumbling buildings and boarded-up businesses; working-class neighborhoods filled with old houses, their lawns cluttered with debris. The inhabitants flounder in their relationships and yearn for brighter vistas, some excitement or a different job—often realizing, too late, what they already had. Over time, Kauffman seems to suggest, memory becomes Kodachrome and nostalgia clouds objectivity. In a particularly moving passage, Tracy remembers the last Christmas she spent with her father, as a child:
Could she recall this warm memory with such intense particularity if there was not also the same measure of love attached? 1983, when her father wore a red flannel shirt over a red cotton turtleneck and he drank black coffee. What she felt now was so pure, it was as though every emotion she’d ever had toward him had been distilled into this one moment, and the pained and joyous throbbing inside her almost felt like the beating of wings. 1983, when she knew nothing of the ways people fail each other; when she believed her father to be the best father.
Another Place You’ve Never Been is a moving, elegantly constructed tribute to human frailty and loss, and to our stubborn insistence on striving for human connection despite a slew of obstacles. In the character of Tracy, Kauffman has given us a fascinating portrait of a modern, tragic heroine, and a lens into our own darkest, most hopeful places.
Mary Vensel White is a contributing editor at LitChat.com and author of the novel The Qualities of Wood (2014, HarperCollins). Her work has appeared in The Wisconsin Review and Foothills Literary Journal. Find her online at www.maryvenselwhite.com.