By Josie E. Davis
Who doesn’t love a vacation? We want them, we pay for them, we plan them and we make videos of them to show our grandkids. They’re temporary obsessions that outlast us even after we’re gone, made to be good despite the usual mishaps like getting lost or running out of money or losing track of your daughter or simply forgetting where home was to begin with.
This is what I think about as I read the opening pages of HISTORAMA, the debut novel by Diza Sauers, who gives “vacation” a meaning more wrought with familial dysfunction than the word itself perhaps deserves. Sauers‘ leading persona, Riva, is an about average teenage girl whose repulsion and embarrassment for her mother, Mallory, is the catalyst for one family’s inevitable breakdown just miles from where the pair leaves their home on the other side of the Arizona desert.
The book opens on a rainy night with an empty tank of gas and no money as Mallory whoops and hollers about life on the road before parking – terminally – outside a desert ranch now renovated as a historic tourist must-see layover of the wild west. “DON’T MISS OUR HIST-O-RAMA,” reads the flashing welcome billboard of a deteriorating cowboy. What begins as a poolside stay is quickly weighted down by the advent of adopted children, elaborate money making schemes (think human trafficking and the Calamity Jane wild west show), the occasional affair and really, the possibility that one history can be traded for another, just like family.
“Gradually, her mother turned into someone that Riva had never seen before. The only thing left for Riva to do was become someone different too.” Riva tugs herself farther away from the incidents she can’t control, “Long ago she took the words she had for what happened and let them go, not one by one, but in a great wave that rose at once, out the top of her head, a great chattering flock that swept up and away and vanished high, high above her into tiny black dots.” All the while Mallory lights a fuse, the kind that leads them again and again away from home running away from the past, high on instinct, and low on gas.
At first glace HISTORAMA is a puzzled landscape: red pick up truck. petting zoo. abandoned kids, one of whom eats dirt. rough and tumble managers and gaming, ruthless men, tattoos of the Arizona desert sky. But Sauers doesn’t leave time for gambling or dust storms or rodeos, it’s clear she’s more interested in the messed up realities of a handful of less than ordinary characters. We’re all tourists, I might add, and the price gets higher with age.
One of my beloved characters is Clarke, the granddaughter of the ranch’s original owner, Sully. Clarke returns to the ranch after fifteen years on the cusp of Riva and Mallory’s eminent breakdown and the sale of Sully’s land, using her skills as a tattoo artist – and a fine one at that – to preserve the history she knows and the change that is coming. This is what bonds Clarke to Riva in their mutual attempts to adapt to the present situation through some quiet and solitary resistance.
HISTORAMA is a successful debut for Sauers, Professor at University of Arizona, disturbing and rich and dishonest the way families are. I’ve cried and I’ve laughed, and more often I return to this place out of curious disbelief. If HISTORAMA really does exist, then I’ve come and gone and will go again. As for the characters within, sometimes it takes a vacation to remind you where home is. In this case, the landscape is a mixed bag of runaway mothers who find hope in the arms of immoral men, memoirs of dying women and tourist sell outs, and the unclaimed children, strong and mute, who struggle toward adulthood in the shadow of familial ignorance. HISTORAMA is a vivacious portrait of the Faulknerian west, and without precedence a star on the map.