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KNAU's Southwest Book Review: The Sawtooth Complex, By Prescott Writer Susan Lang

University of Nevada Press

Planet vs. people: That's the theme of Prescott writer  Susan Lang's most recent book, The Sawtooth Complex. It picks up where her Mojave Desert trilogy left off, reviving the character of Maddie Farley, a reluctant hero and defender of nature. In The Sawtooth Complex, Farley takes on land developers, intent on changing the wild desert she loves so much. KNAU's Southwest Book Reviewer, Mary Sojourner, says the novel offers a genuine portrayal of the people and landscape of the Mojave Desert. 

The Sawtooth Complex takes us back to the setting of her first novel, Small Rocks Rising. Over 75 years have passed since Ruth Farley began homesteading alone in the little Morongo Basin canyon. The desert and its weather patterns have changed, not by nature but by human will and greed. Maddie Farley, Ruth's daughter, knows this far too well.

Maddie has become the matriarch of a new generation of Farleys. She lives close to the land and knows the backcountry as well as the contours of her own aging body. She walks barefoot over Mojave trails and made meals from what she has foraged. She contains the desert. She writes from the inside out. 

Here is the opening of The Sawtooth Complex: "Maddie Farley plucked up the oak leaf from where it lay next to the tracks of a doe and fawn. The leaf's edge had been eaten away. A few chewed acorn cups lay on the ground beside the tracks. Quercus turbinella: Scrub Oak. Latin words from her old world of studies and research still came to her. It was best to just let them pass on through. She was home again to stay."

Maddie's country and the world of her family and friends are in trouble - from developers eager to create a luxury development in a beloved riparian canyon and from human-caused weather patterns that have dried the desert vegetation to perfect fuel. Lang takes us deep into the heart of the resistance to the developer's plans, into a community torn by conflict over preserving the area or easing one of the worst employment crises in California history. Her characters come fully alive in a complex interweaving of family conflict, old feuds and newly found love. 

A ferocious wildfire - based on the real Sawtooth Complex Fire in 2007 - brings the development conflict to a head and forces the Farley family and the community to look hard at what really matters - for their town, for their lives and for the desert. Lang resolves the seemingly polarized crisis with the same hard grace that the desert itself can bring to those who care for it.

Mary Sojourner is a Flagstaff-based writer. 

Mary Sojourner is the author of three novels: Sisters of the Dream Northland Publishers, 1989; Going Through Ghosts, University of Nevada Press, 2010 and 29, Torrey House Press, 2014; the short story collection, Delicate, Nevermore Press, 2001 and Scribner, 2004; essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest University of Nevada Press, 2002 and 2004; memoir, Solace: rituals of loss and desire, Scribner, 2004; and memoir/self-help guide, She Bets Her Life, Seal Press, 2010. She has been a ten-year NPR commentator and now reviews books for KNAU’s Southwest Book Reviews. She’s the author of op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network and dozens of other publications. She was chosen as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2007 by the Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, ASU.