I like to think that I will at least recognize the name of most American novelists who have written critically acclaimed fiction for over twenty years. But I'm embarrassed to say that until I heard Garrison Keillor talking about him on “Writer's Almanac” I had never heard of Richard Powers. His list of awards is indeed impressive – National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist in 2006, New York Times Notable Book five times, MacArthur Fellowship. Just another reminder of how much great fiction is out there waiting to be read.
So I chose his 2006 book The Echo Maker. The book title refers to the sandhill crane, whom Native Americans named “the echo maker” because of its distinctive call. The opening sequence is an absolutely beautiful description of the cranes settling onto the frigid Platte river in Nebraska as part of their northward migration. Then the calm of this scene is shattered by the squeal of brakes and the sound of a crash. Even if you don't read the whole book I recommend that you read those first two pages – knocked my socks off.
The crash victim is twenty-seven year old Mark Schluter, and the head injury he suffers produces an unusual condition. He believes that his older sister Karin, who has returned to her Nebraska hometown to care for her brother, is an impostor – a skilled actress who looks like Karin and seems to know him and his family history well but is a fake. In desperation Karin contacts Doctor Gerald Weber, an Oliver Sacks-like neurologist who has written several successful books about unusual brain disorders. Weber agrees to come to Nebraska, and his own professional and personal life becomes entwined with the Schluters, Mark's friends and caregivers, and eventually even the cranes.
In the process Powers imparts an amazing amount of information about brain injury and brain research (maybe more than I needed), but he also creates compelling characters who struggle with their identity and sense of self. He weaves the arc of the cranes' migratory journey into the stories of this characters' personal journeys, and the mystery of an anonymous note left by a witness to the accident is threaded through the book and revealed in the end.
I'm glad I found Richard Powers. How many other wonderful writers am I missing?