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Dear Agent for a Day,
When Penn Ellesworth takes a summer college job looking for endangered Biscuit Owls in southwestern Colorado, her purpose is simply to save the world, as she proudly tells her crewmates. However, her fear of the dark soon collides with her desperate desire to do good, and she starts to make mistakes. She hits a cow with the work truck in the middle of the night, and lies to their boss, Charlene Van Holt, to cover it up. She pursues a friendship with Charlene’s dangerously unstable brother, a failing rancher with grudges of his own. Finally, and most irrevocably, she falls in love with her owl-obsessed crew boss, Nick Unser. Nick persuades her to use her connections with Charlene and her brother to restore critical habitat for the Biscuit Owl—work that can only be done by fire. Will Penn commit arson, even murder, in her quest to be true to her ideals and take action for an environmental cause?
Burning Down the Ranch is a 100,000-word literary novel that should appeal to readers of Barbara Kingsolver and Pam Houston. It features smart, tough women who aren’t afraid to put themselves on the line to fight for their beliefs, yet are still beset with tricky relationship issues.
Since receiving my MFA in 2003, I’ve published stories in several journals, including the Ontario Review, the North American Review, West Branch, and SEED Science Magazine (annual fiction issue). My work has won honors in the Atlantic Monthly Student Fiction Contest and NAR’s Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize, and been nominated for Best American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. Burning Down the Ranch is my first novel.
I’ve been reading your blog for almost a year now, and it’s one of my favorite sources of inspiration and information about the publishing process. As per the instructions on your website, I am pasting the first five pages of my novel to the end of this email.
Thanks for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Burning Down the Ranch
This is the summer that Charlene Van Holt will burn down her brother’s ranch, but no one knows that yet, not even Charlene, so the owlers can be excused for their ignorance. It’s June, 1993, and the three have them have only just started: this is their very first night out alone. They’re setting up camp on the Tenderfoot finger mesas, on the opposite side of Stickleback County from the Van Holt family ranch, and they can hardly believe their good luck. They’re being paid to hike the woods at night, hooting like an owl and writing down what hoots back. “It’s like we lucked into some job lottery or something,” says Penn, the girl, hooking her honey hair behind one ear and letting her gear slide to the ground.
“Except for the whole pay part,” Bo answers. “Twelve dollars a day is hardly the lottery.” He fingers his Discman, which could stand to be replaced but won’t be, not this summer.
“We got what we need, though,” adds Nick, the oldest at twenty-three. “Shelter, enough to buy food—“
“Not much of it.”
“—a vehicle. The tools to do our job.”
Charlene would approve of Nick’s argument. It was her idea a decade ago to meet the new wildlife survey requirements with volunteer crews. Sure, they’re less experienced, but inexperience has the side benefit of being less likely to find something inconvenient. So Lenny, her head biologist, started to put out a little advertisement in college internship bulletins every spring, and ten years later, here they are. The Biscuit Owl is what they’re looking for this year; up from the Electric Eagle, the Two-Tailed Frog, and the Trumpet-Nosed Bat. But this is all history to the owlers, who know nothing more of it than anything else. They probably couldn’t even pick Charlene Van Holt, their boss’s boss, out of a crowd. But she wouldn’t hold that against them.
“Another tick!” Penn exclaims, and flicks one off her arm.
“Nice. Free to infest one of us. The thing to do is kill it,” says Bo.
“But you just can’t bring yourself to.” Bo’s voice is a little singsongy, like he’s imitating an imitation of her.
“I know. I need to get into the killing mode. I know,” she says, trying not to rise to the bait, if this is a bait. She still isn’t quite sure what to do with herself, the lone girl in the boys’ club. She goes off to set up her tent.
“She’s such a chick,” complains Bo to Nick when she’s out of earshot.
Nick shrugs. “It’ll be good for us,” he says, as he gets out the Coleman stove. He’s on dinner duty tonight. “Keep us from turning into total wild men.”
“But that’s the thing,” Bo says. “I want to be a wild man this summer. Grizzly Adams, man! Let my beard grow! Sleep on the ground! Bathe in the streams!”
Nick raises one eyebrow as he pumps up the stove, twenty vigorous strokes, just like the label pasted on the little red tank instructs. Bo seems an unlikely candidate for a Grizzly Adams wannabe. His T shirt is probably the single newest object in the entire camp. His blond hair is freshly cut and Nick could have sworn he heard him blow-drying it this morning in the community bathroom.
It’s their first night out together alone. Last week Lenny came out with them—a total weenie about everything, Bo complained, wouldn’t let them so much as go take a piss in the dark by themselves—and the week before that was training, everything from how to identify a Biscuit Owl from among the sixteen or so other owls found in southwestern Colorado to how to save your crewmate if he is choking on his dinner. They had diversity training, too, and sexual harassment training. The latter is a new thing, instituted this year after a lawsuit two districts over, but once again, the owlers don’t know that. They don’t even know that this is the last year the federal government will pony up for an owl crew.
The permanents call the seasonal crews Charlene’s Minions: the ignorant legions that do her bidding. Not that the permanents don’t do her bidding, of course. They just grumble about it.
As Bo goes off to set up the guys’ tent, Nick fills a battered aluminum pot with water from the five-gallon jug, and organizes his supplies as the flames leap up from the burner. Two boxes of macaroni and cheese. A can of tuna. A can of green beans. He checks them carefully, lifts them up and puts them back down, box, box, can, tin pot with water waiting for the flame on the stove to settle down to a nice blue burn.
Nick Unser, from Cheboygan, Michigan, is tall but narrow, with beetle-dark hair that licks and crawls around his scalp and a formality that intimidates the other two. When the summer is over he is going back to East Lansing to finish up his senior year at Michigan State University. He will return the way he came: two days to make the 1540-mile drive to Colorado. His only major stop was in Nebraska, where he parked his Corolla beside a cornfield and slept on the ground. For two days he lived on beef jerky and Coke. This is his way; he didn’t think anything of it. When he told the other two, though, they stared at him like he’d said he rode freight trains out here. Nick is finding this to be a common reaction: he does something he thinks is normal and other people treat him like he’s flown to the moon.
He turns down the flame with a deft hand, then sets the pot above it, opens the cardboard boxes and dumps in the clicking noodles. Instantly the smell of dry noodles wafts across the mesa top; then the smell of dry noodles taking in the boiling water and beginning to plump. He takes out a pocket knife and jabs at each can until he can pry off the lid, then pours the metallic-smelling beans and the salty tuna into the noodles, water and all. He bends back the jagged metal lids into the cans, crams them into one macaroni box and one box into the other, then goes back to scanning the deepening land.
The owler’s camp stove, the five-gallon water jug, their tents, their compasses, even their water bottles are all marked with the letters A-R-G. The Agency for Remnant Ground, they could tell you now. Two weeks before their tongues tangled and they couldn’t quite remember what the letters stood for; after two weeks of training, however, they’ve at least learned the basic fact of Stickleback County: the ARG. Eighty percent of the county is managed by the Department of the Interior via Charlene Van Holt and sixty percent of the workforce belongs to her. Which is why the new and persistent rumor that Congress, via Charlene, intends to sell off ARG land to the highest bidder has the county shaking in its boots.
But as usual, the owlers are unaware. As far as they are concerned, the ARG has always been here and will always be here.
“You got boilage there, Nick-o,” says Bo, coming back around the government Bronco. As he passes its windows he quickly glances at his reflection, adjusting the bandana he’s tied over his hair.
“Working on the Grizzly Adams thing already?” Nick asks.
Bo doesn’t quite hear the sarcasm. “I thought I’d start with hippie, and move up.”
Bo Riggs. He told them on the first day that he was from California; when Penn said she was from Ohio, Bo said he’d lived there, too; apparently he’s also lived in Michigan, although Nick hasn’t been able to pin down where. The guy’s kind of a chameleon, or a poser, or something. But he’s also quick to figure what needs to be done. Nick will give him credit for that, and it’s a big credit. If you’re out in the woods, you’ve got to be able to rely on your crew. Bo set up the tent without being asked and right now all Nick needs to say is, “Dishes?” and Bo is rattling in the cooler, pulling out the aluminum plates that the ARG bought during the Ford administration and polishing them on his shirt.
“Fucking dust,” he says.
“Better get used to it. I think it’s Grizzly Adams’ fifth food group.”
“It’s fucking everywhere. In my very ass crack, dude. Worse than a day at the beach.” He’s set up the plates on the cooler, a stack of plates, a handful of forks, and just before they hear a step coming around the Bronco and Penn appears, he farts. He reddens only slightly and says, “Did I hear one of those flatulated owls?”
“Flammulated owl, Bo,” corrects Penn. “Did you hear one?”
There’s an awkward silence, then Bo says, with only a slight twisted glance at Nick, “Uh, I thought I did.”
“Man, I miss all the best stuff,” Penn says, going to get a plate. “Thanks for the dinner here, Nick.”
Not so sure about this one, thinks Nick. In a crisis, could you rely on her? He decides to be charitable and give her the benefit of the doubt, but also to not maybe place his life in her hands. He smiles at her politely.
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