What do you do after you’ve done all you can? Jo Packwood, marine biologist at the top of her professional game, decides to climb Mt. Olympia, all 17,000 feet of it, looking for clues to her blighted childhood and facing the cold mists of her future.
The book begins on the trail up the mountain. Jo is accompanied by Solomon, nicknamed Squibb, her long-lost uncle, the person most likely to help her reconnect spiritually with her father Papi, or Nelson, who abandoned her and her mother when she was a small child. Why?—Jo has only vague memories to rely on, most of them painting a scurrilous impression of Nelson—a decorated soldier, yes, but a reckless rake and deceiver.
Jo has recently placed her mother, increasingly isolated by Alzheimer’s, in a nursing home, evoking guilt, as well as frustration at the lack of information about the fractured family. As they ascend, Jo and Squibb spar, share, and commiserate, while he gradually, gruffly, fills in a more human, ameliorative portrait of Nelson, who disappeared, presumed dead in an avalanche, on the very mountain they are climbing.
Squibb is a reluctant mentor whose advice will reverberate for Jo at a critical moment: “Life isn’t a sprint, sugar pie. It’s about bases: you get to each for the grand slam homerun.” Loss of radio contact with a group of hikers up ahead, hallucinations possibly brought on by oxygen deprivation, and the horrifying discovery of a cache of frozen corpses (could Nelson’s be among them?) stymie the pair, with worse to come.
Fox Deatry, media executive and author (American Witches: An American Witch in New York City), tells Jo’s story in flashbacks as she hikes up Mt. Olympia: her discouraging visit with her deluded mother; her mentoring moment with a female cleric; an unexpected talk with one of her father’s old war buddies; and her introduction to Solomon/Squibb who will challenge her to conquer the mountain that killed her father (“Up there, you’ll experience unexpected things”).
Deatry’s descriptive prose shows practiced sophistication, and he conveys ordinary conversation believably. The plot is well constructed, and readers may appreciate the story’s close adherence to the classic concept of the hero’s journey: reluctance at the outset, fateful guidance, life-threatening peril, all leading, as the subtitle references, to rebirth, in a most surprising, cinematic conclusion.
17,000 Feet, an adventure combining real time, powerful memory and lush imagination, offers a heroine in crisis coming to terms with her life’s big questions by taking courage and, finally, taking charge.