Jack Harrell is not afraid to ask questions. In his newest work, Caldera Ridge, Harrell blends an impressive ability to create majestic setting and meaningful characters with questions that will keep you up at night. Does God know every decision that we will ever make or are there still portions of our life that have not been predetermined? If everything has already been decided, then what value is there in going through the ups and downs of life? Harrell says that “Caldera Ridge is intended for anyone who has realized the complexity of life; for people who recognize that finding simple answers to life’s questions can be challenging.”
Many of Harrell’s essays and several books have been published over the past 15 years. His novel, Vernal Promises, and short story collection, A Sense of Order, have each received
awards. Harrell says Caldera Ridge has been in process for about 16 years and has gone through 10 to 12 very significant drafts before the finished product was released July 30th of this year. He says working as an English professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho in recent years has helped his ideas and thoughts on the themes of predestination and freedom of choice come into greater focus. “Part of the idea for the book came from daily walks with a fellow professor. He became a sounding board for these ideas and conversations.”
Caldera Ridge is the story of Kail Lambert, an Illinois boy who the summer after his senior year in high school ends up in Idaho, where he joins the LDS Church and marries a local girl, Charlene. After a 15-year hiatus in Arizona, the family returns to Idaho, where they are forced to come to terms with issues of family, love and God. Many of the terms and settings found in the book are specific to the LDS faith (references are made to “relief society” and “sacrament meeting”), but the questions presented by Harrell are common to every background and religious persuasion. Harrell hopes that in addition to the central focus of his work, readers will appreciate some of the more subtle points of Caldera Ridge. “Love is a choice, something that you choose to do. If love and devotion are forced, is it really even love?” Harrell asks.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Caldera Ridge, is the masterful presentation of the setting in the mountains and valleys of northeastern Idaho, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. The reader accompanies Kail throughout the landscape as he mends fences and clears campgrounds, not failing to notice the serenity of his environment. Passages such as this one are included throughout the book:
They stepped over a row of rocks that lined the parking lot and walked a few feet through the wild grasses to where the land began to dip down into a low valley with small trees extending a half mile or so to the foothills in the distance. The sun in the eastern sky had risen well above the distant mountains. The trees in the lowest part of the valley were green and lush and tinged with a blue-pink light. The sounds of songbirds and crows filled the air.
The panorama of wilderness and vast stretches of creation are balanced with the complexities and challenges of daily life in a very small town. Harrell’s words and style shift perfectly to convey a sense of simplicity and confinement when describing the town and its inhabitants:
When they stepped into Big Mikes’s [diner], a bell rang over the door. There were booths and tables and pictures of hot-rod cars on the walls. Near the front was a juke box, a gumball machine, and a wire rack stacked with copies of Idaho Ag News. At the griddle in the open kitchen, a heavy man wearing a greasy white apron and blue baseball cap turned backward nodded at them and gestured a wave with his spatula. The server was a skinny teenager wearing a lot of blue eye makeup. She came and seated them at a booth.
Jack Harrell’s writing will make an impact and leave an impression with readers. He takes pride in being a “contemporary, working-class, blue-collar writer”, and he is inspired by the works of similar authors both contemporary and classic. “I come from a family of truck drivers and waitresses in Southern Illinois.” Perhaps this is why Harrell is so successful in creating characters that we can relate to and empathize with.