This week’s other featured books, “Time is the Longest Distance,” by Janet Clare, “Living on the Borderlines,” by Melissa Michal and “Flutter,” by Kristin Garth, can be found by scrolling down below this post.
THE BOOK: Three Ways to Disappear.
PUBLISHED IN: 2019
THE AUTHOR: Katy Yocom.
THE EDITOR: Midge Raymond.
THE PUBLISHER: Ashland Creek Press, a vegan-owned boutique publisher dedicated to publishing books with a world view. Ashland Creek Press publishes compelling stories about the environment, animal protection, ecology, and wildlife.
SUMMARY: Leaving behind a nomadic and dangerous career as a journalist, Sarah DeVaughan returns to India, the country of her childhood and the site of her brother’s tragic death, to help preserve the endangered Bengal tigers. Meanwhile, at home in Kentucky, her sister, Quinn—also deeply scarred by the past and herself a keeper of secrets—tries to support her sister, even as she fears that India will be Sarah’s undoing.
As Sarah faces challenges in her new job—made complicated by complex local politics and a forbidden love—Quinn copes with their mother’s refusal to talk about the past, her son’s life-threatening illness, and her own increasingly troubled marriage. When Sarah asks Quinn to join her in India, Quinn realizes that the only way to overcome the past is to return to it, and it is in this place of stunning natural beauty and hidden danger that the sisters can finally understand the ways in which their family has disappeared—from their shared history, from one another—and recognize that they may need to risk everything to find themselves again.
This is a novel about saving all that is precious, from endangered species to the indelible bonds among family.
THE BACK STORY: In 2004, I had just gotten my MFA degree in creative writing from Spalding University’s low-residency program. I was between writing projects and feeling restless. When a tigress at the Louisville zoo gave birth to a litter of cubs, I found myself obsessed. It was a reawakening, I guess, of my childhood passion for big cats. Soon, a novel began writing itself in my head—the story of Sarah DeVaughan, an American woman who goes to India on an idealistic mission to save tigers.
Despite my best efforts at research here in the States, once I started writing the first draft, I quickly realized the only way to write this book was to travel to India. I needed to experience the tiger reserves, visit the surrounding countryside, and see for myself the complexities of conservation efforts. I quickly learned that the goal of saving tigers often directly conflicts with local villagers’ ability to simply make a living. My research in India added so many layers to the story. It also allowed me to imagine Sarah’s life there as a child with her family, including the death of her brother at age seven, an event that became a central element in the story.
This book was a total labor of love for me. I worked on it for more than a dozen years before it was published. You hear stories about authors falling out of love with their projects and eventually abandoning them. But this story always felt alive to me. Always.
WHY THIS TITLE?: The working title was originally “Tiger Woman,” but that was too similar to other tiger-ish titles being published at the time. I came up with Three Ways to Disappear more or less intuitively. I’m often asked about the title, and all I can say is that disappearance—physical, emotional, spiritual—is a pervasive theme in the book. But you could definitely make a case for other ways to interpret the title. For instance, Sarah is one of three siblings, and you could argue that their journeys are the disappearances. To be honest, I like the fact that the title’s meaning is a little elusive. I’m happy for readers to answer that question for themselves.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? To lose yourself in a story about two sisters trying to find their way back to each other from opposite sides of the planet. To spend time in the midst of love in all its forms. To wrestle with the big questions. And, of course, to explore a new country and revel in the glory of the world’s most magnificent animal, the Royal Bengal tiger. I wanted to write a novel that would keep the reader turning pages while also engaging the reader’s head and heart. Can I quote a blurb here? The great Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus (a National Book Award finalist), said, “What a fabulous ride! The characters—both human and tiger—are so alive they practically leap off the page. The drama feels absolutely real. And the urgency of the book’s message has never been greater.”
“… a book driven by the lives of two complex female characters. …. Katy Yocom has crafted an ideal novel for the unprecedented audience of a 2020 pandemic. Merging entertainment and reality, fear and growth, pain and love … Three Ways to Disappear offers the solace of a novel founded on what makes life meaningful.” –The Roadrunner Review
“…deeply human. …Not only are the characters changed by the end of the story, we are changed for having known them.” – North American Review
“Sarah is enthralling—a savvy traveler whose manner of dealing with antagonists is excellent. …Three Ways to Disappear is informative, refreshingly complex, and ends in realistic fashion. Sometimes answers only beget more questions, and consequences make life, like the future of the tiger, uncertain.”—Foreword Reviews
AUTHOR PROFILE: I became a writer because reading meant so much to me when I was growing up, and even in my adult life I’ve always turned to books to learn about the world—not just the world outside me, but the world inside, too. The human heart. Reading a book is the closest we will ever come to knowing what it’s like to be another person. And imagining being another person is the path to empathy. What’s happening in our country right now is, in part, a call to empathy—it’s asking us to open ourselves to the idea that people who are not like us are, in the end, every bit as human as we are.
I started out as a journalist. I’m very curious about other people, and writing stories—especially profiles—allowed me to ask all kinds of questions that wouldn’t come up in normal conversation! I don’t mean confrontational questions, I mean ones that are deeper than we might otherwise consider it polite to ask a stranger.
Eventually I realized that I was always wanting to find the narrative thread in the articles I was writing—to really tell a story, I mean—and that’s what led me to writing fiction. I also enjoy writing personal essays, and I’ve published quite a few of them, in Salon, Newsweek (an essay about my trip to India to research the book), Lit Hub, Necessary Fiction, and even American Way, the American Airlines in-flight magazine. But Three Ways to Disappear is my first novel.
I’m very happy that the novel has done well in terms of recognition. It was named a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, which was thrilling! It won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, the First Horizon Award, and the Micro Press Award, and it was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize. It was also long-listed for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, alongside books by Ocean Vuong, Kiley Reid, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner, among others, so that was really exciting.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: I wanted to tell the story in Three Ways to Disappear because I’ve always felt that the human world and the natural world are equally important. In a sense, my novel tells parallel stories about a human family and a tiger family. All of us—human or animal—have powerful drives to connect, love, and raise the next generation. All of us experience loss. I wrote this book out of my passionate belief in connectedness and coexistence among animals and humans. I wrote it to explore the fragility of relationships and life itself, as well as the healing power of love.
In the year after Marcus died, their mother stopped loving people, one after another. Her minister, her tennis coach, her friends. Daddy. On a day dripping with the end of the monsoon, she clicked shut the brass latches on her daughters’ suitcases and supervised as Ravindra loaded them into the car. In the courtyard, beneath the peepal tree, Daddy clutched the girls to his chest. Quinn, at eleven, was the responsible one; Sarah, at eight, the remnant twin: widowed by Marcus when he died, if widowed was the word for it, which it wasn’t. There was no word for it. Thin mud soaked their shoes as he kissed their cheeks and begged them not to forget him. It was a terrible thing to hear him say because it opened up the possibility that they could. His voice had gone high with pain, which embarrassed Quinn for him. She didn’t think men were supposed to feel that much.
Mother pulled the girls away, leaving their father to stand alone in the filtered sunlight, arms dangling at his sides as if he didn’t know how they operated. Daddy was a doctor, the reason they lived in India, and India, according to Mother, was the reason Marcus was dead. Daddy’s mouth curled down, and he cried silently as his daughters watched. Behind him, Ayah wept, rhythmic and soft like singing. Beyond Ayah, the watchman stood: the courtyard a chessboard, the adults the game pieces isolated in their separate squares. Ayah’s weeping turned ragged, and Quinn and Sarah ran and clung to her until Mother pried their fingers from Ayah’s damp turquoise sari and pushed the girls, stumbling and crying, into the car. Their shoes muddied the floor mats, but Quinn didn’t care.
Ravindra opened the wrought iron gate and nosed the car into the inchoate, horn-honking flow of Delhi traffic. In the back seat, Quinn turned around and watched their home grow smaller. Before it vanished altogether, she raised her hand to it and said good-bye. Good-bye to everything and everyone and everywhere. Good-bye to Daddy. To Ayah. To every friend, enemy, household staff member, shopkeeper, schoolteacher, gymnastics instructor, swimming coach. It seemed easy for Mother: She had shut down her heart. But she still loved her girls. The proof was that she took them with her.
The other proof was that she hadn’t believed Quinn when she tried to confess her role in what had happened to Marcus. Quinn said the words, but Mother let them fall to her bedroom floor, where they scuttled under the bed and vanished. Which meant that the secret was still Quinn’s to carry. She had spent a long time considering the consequences before she told Mother what she’d done, but this possibility had never occurred to her.
“Remember, young ladies. Always be good,” Ravindra said at the airport curb, his eyes streaming. Sarah and Quinn hugged him hard. They cried. But when Mother told them to leave him, they left, dutiful girls. They boarded an enormous jet and flew west across India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey. Across all of Europe to Paris. Over the ultramarine Atlantic Ocean and down the eastern seaboard to New York. From there to Louisville, Kentucky, the town where Mother had grown up. They were leaving their unhappiness as far behind them as the planet would allow.
Quinn thought she felt it happen. When the plane lifted off from the Delhi runway, she felt an invisible force push her body back into the seat and flow through her, a tide running in the direction of India and the ground. So Mother was right: It was possible to leave things behind, events and stories and history. With a sense of relief, as the plane shuddered around her, she lifted up her secret and offered it to the tide. She would go to America, and she would be free.
She was twenty-eight years old on the day she stopped believing in this magic. Twenty-eight and bare-bellied on an examining table, her husband’s fingers interlaced with her own. The ultrasound tech ran a wand over her midsection, and in a haze of black and gray, the two children inside her revealed their identities: a boy and a girl, just like Marcus and Sarah. Sarah was twenty-five at the time. Marcus was still seven, if he was anything at all.
As she looked at the hazy images of the children inside her, she felt it again: the weight of the plane lifting off and pushing her down. And she knew then that distance and years were nothing, that no matter what their mother said, their histories traveled with them, stitched into their DNA.
Peacock blue, she thought at first, but that was wrong. Mineral blue, like larimar. A sky color.
On a stool in front of Quinn, her son kicked his feet. It was the day before Nick and Alaina turned seven, and he was sitting for his portrait, to match the one of his sister that Quinn had completed that morning. Quinn’s eyes wanted to linger on the curve and color of his peachy little cheek, to slow everything down. She wasn’t ready for the twins to be seven. She had known it since the day of that ultrasound: She would never be ready for them to reach this age.
“How come you’re using pastels instead of real paint?” Nick asked. By “real paint” he meant acrylics. In art school, Quinn had loved oils, but she hadn’t allowed them into her studio since the day she’d learned she was pregnant. Too many noxious fumes in the paint thinners and brush cleaners: bad for the babies.
“I want to get you down fast so you don’t have to sit so long,” she said. The cerulean blue of his T-shirt reflected into Nick’s eyes, which were a cool, deep hue, nearly periwinkle, pebbled with white. She touched oil pastel to paper to add the reflected color, just a couple of tiny arcs. Barely there at all.
The work absorbed her as it always did. She registered only vaguely the aroma of applewood smoke that told her Pete was heating the gas grill on the deck below. Giggles from the twins’ room meant Alaina had commandeered her Auntie Sarah, who was back in Louisville between reporting assignments. Sarah had come for a meal and to spend the night; Alaina had brokered the latter part of that deal. Quinn paused for a moment to listen. They were arguing playfully over whether their card game should be called Crazy Eights or Crazy Aunts. Sarah was advocating for the latter.
“What kind of cake are you making?” Nick asked.
“Chocolate with chocolate frosting. Just like you asked for.” She stepped back to assess the drawing. Getting close, although she wanted to do a little more around his mouth and nose. So many complicated curves in that part of the face.
“Mom? Can we be done?”
“Sure, kiddo. You did great.” Before she finished the sentence, he shot out the door, eager to fill Alaina in on the proceedings of the past half hour, no doubt. “Twin summit” was the family term for this mandatory briefing after every separation. “Like heads of state,” Pete had once said as he and Quinn stood watching their children, bemused.
Quinn had begun straightening her studio when Sarah ambled in. “My services were no longer needed,” she said, nodding toward the room across the hall. She straddled the stool and twined her long legs around it, giving the effect of a rider on horseback. “So my last assignment didn’t go so well.”
“No? Where were you?”
Sarah made an impatient noise. “Crappy little dictatorship. Continent beginning with the letter A.” Sometimes she answered questions that way, to avoid scaring her family, Quinn assumed. “I was doing a series on government reforms to help with the refugee crisis. It all looked pretty impressive. I filed a long story about how things were turning a corner, the aid initiatives were working, et cetera. But the day I’m supposed to leave, all the flights get canceled because of a coup attempt, so I come back to the city. On the way, something tells me to stop by one of the sites where I’d been reporting. And it’s gone.”
Quinn stopped cleaning and tried to gauge her sister’s expression. “Gone? Like a massacre?”
“Gone, like it never existed. Poof. They’d struck the whole damned camp like a movie set.” Sarah dismounted the stool and paced to the window. “I’m out there with my driver, walking around this empty field, and the only thing I’m seeing are some tent stakes and a bunch of empty Pepsi cans. And I’m realizing I’ve been played. And then my so-called government liaison shows up, and the next thing I know I’m being detained.”
“Holy hell, Sarah.” Quinn settled her hips against her work table and glanced involuntarily at the door, but the Lego noises coming from the bedroom said the twins were otherwise occupied.
Sarah peered out between the mullions like a prisoner. “They took my cell phone and laptop and parked me in this hotel room with a guard outside my door. In the middle of the night I hear a scratching at my window, and it’s two guys I know, journalists, and we sneak out of there to this little dirt-track airfield and take a puddle-jumper to the next country.”
Quinn blanched. “What would have happened if they’d caught you?”
“By that point, the government had bigger things to worry about than me.”
This Year of Living Dangerously stuff: It knotted Quinn’s stomach. “You must have been terrified.”
Sarah turned around. “I’m pissed, is what I am. That”—she glanced at the doorway and lowered her voice—“that fucking little dictator used me as a mouthpiece. Turned us all into his propaganda whores.”
Quinn wiped her hands on a paper towel. “It’s not your fault. He set you up.”
“But who’s to say this is the first time? Every time I’ve gotten access to some site or some person who was supposedly off limits, maybe it was the same thing. And the damage is done. The stories have already run.”
“You can retract them.”
Sarah shrugged one shoulder. “People remember the story. They never remember it got retracted. Anyway, that’s it for me. I’m done.”
“What do you mean, done?”
“Done. With journalism.”
“Because of one story? That’s a little impulsive even for you.”
“Because of that story, and the one before it, and the one before that. Like the boy soldiers this summer. People read a story, and the next day it’s forgotten. Nobody wants follow-up. Nobody cares. Or at least that’s what the people in charge of the budgets believe.”
Or they care, but they feel helpless so they look away. Quinn considered the set of her sister’s mouth. “You’re shedding a lot of layers these days,” she said. Sarah’s divorce had been final less than a year. It had been a short marriage, but still, it had exacted a toll.
“You know me. I don’t like to mess around.”
Quinn recognized that breezy tone: a classic Sarah deflection. “It’s hard to imagine you without journalism. I’m really sorry,” Quinn said, and for Sarah’s sake she wanted to mean it, but she couldn’t. No more wondering when she’d get the phone call saying her sister had been killed on assignment. “So you’re coming back home, then?”
Sarah turned, planted her hands on the windowsill, and squinted up into the walnut tree. She was tall and blond like Quinn, but Sarah spilled over with half-contained energy. The way she walked, rangy and loose. People watched her wherever she went, a fact she never seemed to register. “Actually, I got a job.”
“Really! Where?” The local newspaper, Quinn hoped.
Quinn dropped a tray of pastels, sending sticks of pigment skidding across the floor. She knelt to gather them and came up clutching gaudy fistfuls. “Why would you do that? Why would you go back there?”
“I’ll be doing media work for a conservation NGO. Getting their story out. Fundraising. Whatever they need me to do.” As if that were what Quinn had asked. “I’ll be in Sawai Madhopur,” Sarah added. “Ranthambore.”
“Ranthambore,” Quinn said. “Tigers?”
“You always did love the big cats.” Quinn recognized the expression on her sister’s face: full of the future, in love with the next thing. It stung her that Sarah seemed perfectly content to remain a special guest star in the twins’ lives. She didn’t know how they idolized her, how they imagined her life the way some people imagined the lives of celebrities. “What the hell are you doing, Sarah?”
“I’m going where I’m needed.”
“You think we don’t need you?”
Sarah looked almost amused at that. She spread her arms to encompass the modest but lovely 1920s bungalow, the good husband making dinner downstairs, the two perfect children in the next room. The whole package: That was how it must look to her. “There’s a crisis going on.”
“There’s always a crisis somewhere. Did you ever once think about getting a normal job like a normal person? Like, here in the States?”
“How are the States any more normal than the rest of the world?”
Quinn smacked the pastels onto her work table. “You think I’m small, don’t you? Living my small little life with my small little family while you’re out there risking your life and saving the world.”
Sarah laughed. “Come on, Quinnie.”
The twins appeared in the doorway. “Auntie Sarah, are you going to go live in India?” Nick asked.
Sarah scooped him up in a hug. “I am!” she exclaimed, as if it were the best news in the world.
“How far away is that?”
“Do you have a world map? I’ll show you.” And the three of them disappeared into the twins’ room until Pete called up to say dinner was ready.
At the table, the talk was all India. “Will you get to pet tigers?” Nick asked.
“If I petted a tiger, it would probably eat me for dinner.”
“Whoa!” Alaina laughed through a mouthful of chicken. “Don’t do that.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
Pete said something about the guy he worked with from Bangalore at the tech start-up. Nobody mentioned the DeVaughan family history, or the years that would likely pass before the twins saw Sarah again. It was all just pleasant table talk.
After dinner, the children played with Sarah until Quinn sent them into Pete’s office to say good night. He turned away from his monitor and scooped up Alaina, then Nick for a hug and kiss. “Almost finished,” he said to Quinn, turning back to his database as she ushered the twins from the room. When she and Sarah said good night at eleven, Pete was still clackety-clacking away at the keys. She went to bed and turned off the lights.
Later she woke to the sound of Nick’s coughing. Pete lay next to her. She hadn’t heard him come in.
In the twins’ room, light seeped in, dim and blue around the edges of the blinds. On the nightstand, the digital clock read 2:15. She touched her son’s cheek. “You okay, buddy?”
He nodded, covering a cough. She dosed him with the albuterol inhaler, waited, had him blow into the peak flow meter. Seventy percent, middle of the yellow zone. They sat up together on his bed, her back to the wall. Nick leaned against her, dozing between fits of coughing. She ran her hand over his silky hair.
“Mom?” he murmured.
She kissed his head. “Yeah, sweetie?”
“You grew up in India, didn’t you?”
“Till I was eleven.”
“What was it like?”
“Oh,” she said. “Packed.”
“You mean crowded?”
“Yes, but … more like being inside a great big kaleidoscope. Everywhere you looked, there were a million things to see. Beautiful bright colors. People. A million things going on all at once.”
“Like that time we went to the carnival?”
“A lot like that.”
Across the room, Alaina slept on her back, arms flung over her head.
Nick fell quiet, his forehead wrinkling as he tried to puzzle something out. “Mom? Are you Indian or American?”
“I’d say I’m American.”
“What’s Auntie Sarah?”
She smiled. “Auntie Sarah is a citizen of the world.”
His readings stayed in the yellow zone. Just another interrupted night. At five o’clock, the meter showed 82 percent—back in the green—and he drifted into a sleep that held. Quinn slipped back to bed.
At seven she pulled her blond curls into a messy ponytail and stumbled into the kitchen, where she found Sarah rummaging through cupboards, her duffel by the door. It was still dark out. The windows reflected back the overhead lights.
“In the freezer,” Quinn said.
Sarah threw her a glance. “You okay? You look like hell.” She pulled open the freezer, came up with a bag of Italian roast and thumped the door shut.
“Nick was up coughing. He’s still asleep.”
“Sorry. I’ll be quiet.”
When the coffee finished brewing, they stood together cradling hot mugs of it, hips propped against the counter. It was a family trait, standing when other people would sit. “Hey,” Quinn said. “I’m sorry about that thing I said yesterday.”
Sarah glanced at her curiously. “Which thing?”
“About you thinking my life is small.”
“I don’t think it is small,” Sarah said. “It fits you perfectly.”
Quinn squeezed her gritty eyes shut. “God! Can you hear yourself?”
“Aw, Quinnie.” Sarah set her mug on the counter and cuffed Quinn lightly on the shoulder. “We’re different people. So what? I got a job I’m excited about. Can’t you be happy for me? Just a teeny bit?” She held up her palms and peeked between them. “Pretty please? Just that much?”
Quinn laughed in spite of herself. It irked her. Sarah would do exactly as she pleased, so why did she want Quinn’s blessing? It seemed greedy. Yet some tender spot inside her was grateful for the request. Sarah was not one to ask for things.
She considered her sister’s laughing, hopeful expression. Sarah was so elusive to her, always had been: first because she was a twin, then because she was grieving, then because she was gone. “All right, you,” she said, because what else could she say? “Do what you want. Go save those tigers.”
Sarah grinned. “You’re the best.” She picked up her mug for a last gulp of coffee, and set the cup in the sink. Then she gave Quinn a surprising kiss on the cheek, and she was gone.
You can read more using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.
LOCAL OUTLETS: Carmichael’s Bookstore, Louisville, Kentucky, 502-456-6950.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, EcoLit Books.
PRICE: $18.95 paperback, $28.95 hardcover, $9.99 e-book.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR:
Facebook: Katy Yocom Author. Instagram: @katyyocom1. Or email me through my website.