The novel reads quickly for three reasons: it’s suspenseful (a bit of a thriller), the reader is captivated by the characters and its lean. A number of things impress me about Laura Pritchett’s story. Let’s start with Ben, one of the protagonists.
Ben wouldn't be a man you’d notice on the street. He's not somebody that would stand out. But because of the attentive focus of the narrative, the old man gets inside your heart and emerges as a hero, becomes somebody you wish you could know, have as a mentor.
Ben is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He has some important things to do before his diseased mind makes the mission impossible. So he’s fighting a superhuman battle. You find yourself pulling for him, against impossible odds. You want him to succeed, and the story draws it out of you, empathy for this old guy.
But here’s the kicker: the two things he is determined to accomplish are illicit. His objectives are firmly categorized as "bad" in our culture’s moral and legal codes. Some would say evil. Yet we pull for him to succeed.
That is a story!
The other protagonist is Ben’s wife, Renny. I should mention that the narrative is told from two points of view, Renny’s and Ben’s. We alternate chapters between them. This technique catalyzes two effects: the suspense of the thriller and the profound relationship the reader develops with each character.
Renny is not somebody most of us would like if we met her. She is as cold as the winter setting of this novel and cruel. Her motivation to be so shuttered is rooted in the past. Stars Go Blue is the third book in a trilogy. In a previous story Ben and Renny lost their daughter, and that tragedy drove the couple apart.
I found myself wishing something for Renny: that she’d let her guard down and just accept and love herself. To her, everything is stupid, which is her favorite word. Renny’s contempt for herself drives her to pour the same emotion into everyone she loves. It’s heart breaking.
Yet Pritchett manages to turn the table on the reader by putting Renny’s life in danger, by making her vulnerable, and suddenly we’re pulling for her, too.
There’s a third point of view from which we get to watch these people, the granddaughter's. Jess is a great character. We’re introduced to her early on. We’re teased in a way, because she’s an instant favorite, but the lens is always a mile away from her. And we’re always wanting more.
You get the sense that Pritchett knew this about us when, in the end, she gives the reader some time with Jess. The novel closes with a satisfying chapter from her point of view.
There are some rich themes Pritchett addresses in this story. It would be impossible to discuss them without introducing spoilers, which are present below.
The setting is a ranch in Colorado. It’s winter. Icy and cold. And the climax takes place in a blizzard. Stars Go Blue is a bold end-of-life narrative. Pritchett does not flinch. Her directness, I think, will make readers squeamish. From the earliest pages, we are witnesses to ranch life. To birthing and killing. We see animals nurtured and we see them compassionately put down.
There is a juxtaposition which serves to compare the compassion with which the rancher offers the suffering animal at the end of its life to the lack of compassion with which we treat our own kind. It’s taboo to put down a suffering human being.
There are scenes presented in the narrative that most Americans have never contemplated. Scenes detailing where our food comes from. What it means to be alive and to eat and to be near the land. The book reveals the consequences of our appetites, of our lives, to the animals which feed us, which is not a commentary on food in this story, but on life itself.
There are wild things living on the ranch: the bald eagle, the owl, the aspens, the willows and the water. Wildness which the old man loves.
The old rancher is protective of the earth around him. It is his dying wish the that land be preserved, healed. It is a subtext, but it is there, like an accusation. There is something amiss in our civilization: that without protection the very thing that sustains us, the land, is in jeopardy.
The old man is no liberal, no environmentalist. The reader gets the sense that he wouldn’t be able to relate with that urban ethic. He’s a rancher who understands where life comes from. The balance necessary to sustain his family. He understands health in a way no one divorced from the land could.
The main thrust of the story is the damaged family. So the old man's desire to heal the land also serves as a metaphor for another type of healing. There are a lifetime of scars accumulated in this book. Neither Ben nor Renny are very good at intimacy. That is evident in their relationships with their children and grandchildren. They are human beings, as flawed and as afraid as any of us. We get to see the consequences of their lack of development, the fruit it bears over a lifespan.
The theme of self-acceptance is played out through the female characters. Renny is loaded with self-contempt. It is the lens with which she views everyone around her. She sees fault first and protects her heart from further loss by believing that no one will come to a good end. This is played out in her expressed certainty that her granddaughter, Jess, will wind up addicted to drugs and pregnant. Which is ironic because Jess is the character in the story who has learned to love herself. Because she is comfortable with herself, she also loves her grandmother, accepts Renny for who she is.
The resolution to this tale about death (which is to say life), about the land, about family, about love–takes place in the spring, at Ben’s burial. The old man has accomplished his mission. He is a hero.
Ben's heroism means that he has committed acts thought to be reprehensible by our society. However, the reader was with him when he committed those acts, wanted him to succeeded. In other words, the context of the old man’s life, our empathy for him, changed us, grew our own understanding of what it means to be human. Our own understanding of life and of death.
Jess walks us through all of that in the last chapter. We learn that, just as we suspected, she was protecting her grandfather all along. By being clandestine about it, she gave him his dignity. Jess is the embodiment of grace, of forgiveness and of self-acceptance.
The story is going to make the reader sad. That's just the way it is. But it would be a mistake to avoid it because of sorrow. Ben, knowing his mind is almost gone, writes a letter to his future self. It's the most touching scene in the book. An act of compassion, of self-love that brought me to tears.
"You have been a good man. You have Alzheimer's...Be brave. It's been a good life...Everyone has to die, Ben. No life without death. And your time is now, and it's OK."
We've got to put our hearts in order. Stars Go Blue is a good story for that.