Martine Leavitt has a super-cool dad—a smart, rugged man named James Webster who, throughout his life, has gone on countless hikes into mountain ranges and national parks in his native Canada, where he immersed himself in and learned about nature. He also took pages and pages of notes, and countless photographs of the flora and fauna he encountered.
Leavitt—who, it must be said, is pretty cool herself—has done her own pages and pages of writing via eight novels for young readers, including the 2006 National Book Award finalist Keturah and Lord Death. So, naturally, when she became enchanted by her father’s account of a herd of bighorn sheep he followed for four seasons, she encouraged him to publish it.
He demurred, and several years passed. But then her father gave her a special gift: his sheep-centric notes and photos, for her to use as fodder for a book.
The end result, Blue Mountain, is a wonderful, often wondrous, story about a herd of bighorn sheep who live high in mountains very much like the ones Leavitt’s father explored. One major difference: The sheep (and other animals they encounter) talk, laugh, squabble and negotiate just like human beings.
“I told my father I was going to have to fictionalize and anthropomorphize the sheep,” Leavitt tells BookPage from her home in Alberta, Canada. “I got his permission to do that.” That, plus the felicitous timing of the gift, got Blue Mountain off to a strong start.
“I’d just finished writing My Book of Life by Angel, a novel-in-verse about a teen prostitute in Vancouver,” the author explains. “It was a very dark kind of story, not a happy place for me to live while writing. . . . I needed to do something that made me happy, that was a little bit of an escape. And I have 15 grandchildren, but I’ve yet to write a book any of them could read. That’s kind of what got me started, and it was just pure fun from beginning to end.”
Though she has created an affecting tale that illustrates the seriousness of humans’ ever-increasing encroachment on nature, Leavitt has also infused her story with fantasy and given her animal characters personalities that jive with their real-life counterparts’ behaviors and tendencies.
There’s Tuk, a young male bighorn who finds himself in charge of his own small herd, a subset of the larger, older group over which savvy matriarch Kenir presides. Fellow youngsters, including ditzy Mouf and loyal Rim, join him on an exploratory journey to Blue Mountain, which Tuk believes can be the herd’s safe new home—unless, of course, the mist-shrouded behemoth is merely the stuff of myth.
Tuk’s little band of yearlings encounter a variety of obstacles and animals along the way, from a hungrily conniving, yet easily outsmarted, bear to an otter with self-esteem issues (who may or may not help them traverse a bog). Oh, and an elk who really, really wants everyone to know that she’s beautiful.
Leavitt says she “writes the stories I feel really compelled to write,” not least because a character will insist on making itself heard. “My books often start that way—I hear a character talking to me. Before, they’ve always been teenagers.”
And so, the question: Was it difficult to think like a bighorn sheep this time around?
Leavitt says with a laugh, “I do feel you cannot construct a believable voice in a story unless you’ve lived inside the body of your characters. It was a little bit of an extra challenge for me to crawl inside the body of an animal, but it ended up being quite glorious and meaningful.”
Not least, she adds, “because I ended up thinking, is there so much of a difference, so much of a divide, that I can’t understand some things about their exigencies? If you check out a YouTube video of bighorn lambs playing, they run around like little children do. . . . These animals have their territory, their need to exist and survive. Can we really distance ourselves from that basic kind of existence?”
The author’s passion for her subject is infectious and inspiring, for sure, and Blue Mountain is a compelling echo of—and expansion on—her father’s work. Readers who already love animals and worry about the future of our beleaguered Earth will feel both indignant and hopeful on behalf of the animal characters, and perhaps those who are less aware will find their curiosity piqued, or even experience the sparking of an activist flame.
Of course, Leavitt is already there, her respect and concern for nature amplified by her Blue Mountain experience.
“I loved being a bighorn sheep,” she declares. “I felt like that’s what we need to do a little bit more of. Maybe if we stop separating ourselves so much from animals, and see ourselves as a different kind of animal, maybe if big cities could . . . feel the connection of being alive and having the same basic needs, maybe some of the efforts we have to protect wildlife would come naturally, and be even easier to promote.” Here’s hoping.