I have never read a novel so tightly wound around the central arc. Of Mice and Men and As I Lay Dying come to mind, though many years have passed since I read either of those. As complex and layered as the story and characters are in Theft, I felt, after reading the last sentence, I could almost hold the entire novel in my head or, more importantly, in my heart, like a perfect-shaped bell.
Winner of the Colorado Book Award for her collection of essays, Animal, Mineral, Radical, BK Loren was a finalist for the 25th Lambda Literary Award for Theft, her debut novel released in 2012 by Counterpoint Press. It won a Willa Literary Award for Women Writing the West.
The climax occurs at the very center of the book both structurally and inside its beating emotional heart. Zeb commits a murder when he is still a teen, and the novel’s protagonist, his younger sister Willa, loses her brother as a result. He flees from home and disappears into the wild. As the novel switches from past to present, Willa is a master wolf tracker who hasn’t seen Zeb since he disappeared. In middle age, Zeb emails law enforcement, confessing to his crime and then fleeing his home yet again. The police ask Willa to track the brother she has always felt connected to and yet detached from at the same time.
Loren brings opposites together in a complex spiral of love winding around the novel’s simple yet compelling arc. As she notes in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Zeb embodies the Old West while Willa enacts the New West: Zeb is an individualist, “man against nature,” whereas Willa appreciates diversity and community, and she works to rehabilitate nature. Loren says she wove the opposing pieces in the novel together to “provoke questioning” rather than leave the reader with answers.
There is a constant tug between the characters in Theft, just as there is between life and death, nature and civilization, masculine and feminine, Loren’s metaphors of bird (the bird from Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech comes to mind) and fish (echoing and playing with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying), conscious and unconscious, mountain lion and horse, predator and prey — no easy answers or solutions concerning any of these juxtapositions.
Love is constant, however, as Loren mentions in the same interview regarding the family in the novel: love persists throughout all the dysfunction, “beneath all that mess.” And, taking a unique focus in literature, she emphasizes the love rather than the dysfunction. Throughout and especially by the end of the book, I felt, as the reader, a constant love beneath and between all opposing things.
In her childhood, Willa, an impoverished white girl in rural Colorado, is best friends with Brenda, a Navajo adopted (stolen, in keeping with the novel’s theme of theft) from the reservation as a child. The girls go so far as to fall hard onto concrete on purpose to skin their knees and become “blood sisters.” The connection between Brenda and Zeb is also palpable. They are lovers as young adults and years later they reunite after Brenda has returned to the reservation to live with her biological father only to leave again and become a prostitute. She is unable to truly connect with her father Raymond until late in the novel after Zeb is lost to her once again, this time permanently. The father-daughter mission, in common with Willa’s work, is to save the Mexican wolf — uniting the three characters with the goal of salvaging the wild while breaking stereotypes at the same time. Willa’s connection to her Mexican neighbors at her home in New Mexico parallels this unity of three — a white woman and a brown couple sharing her home like a family.
Raymond must kill a wolf to save his relationship with his daughter (only to lose her for many years) and to maintain his overall mission of rescuing the wolves, just as Zeb and Willa end up becoming killers in very different acts of salvation. Brenda must merge with the “masculine” and drive a semi-truck to make her way back, by a coincidence the reader has no problem believing, to her father and her true home. Even Zeb is connected to Raymond through opposing imagery in the novel — he is freezing to death in his boxers whereas Raymond strips down to his boxers in the heat — alive as any character I have ever read. The way Loren strips the masculine bare is both tragic and beautiful. Somehow Raymond, a minor character, was the most vivid to me, full of life and a sure sense of self:
He looked at me. “And you,” he said. “You can help your mom walk by tapping the top of her toe with your own foot.” He lowered his cowboy boot gently onto Mom’s toe, and sure enough, she picked up her feet and began shuffling forward more easily than she had in months.
Raymond smiled. “Sometimes you just gotta remind your brain that your body is bigger and stronger than it is.” He and Mom walked across the room like that, and then pretty soon it seemed like they were dancing.
The strongest cord in the novel, however, is between the two central characters, Willa and Zeb, and the central provoking questions of the novel lie in the title itself. What has been stolen? What is lost? What are the ramifications of theft? Willa and Zeb lose their childhood and innocence to poverty, a dying mother, a distant father, and an abusive neighbor — their childhood nemesis. While Willa never escapes the consequences of loss and death, her story spirals toward life and the new, whereas Zeb is always looping back toward the old and death. He knows that walking toward the point of any weapon — the tip of a knife, even toward the people tracking him — is the best way to beat his enemy or “escape,” yet he steps toward death in his very escaping. The emotion of the novel is most intense in the tracks the characters put into the ground toward death — tracks both Zeb and Willa have trained themselves to follow and to create.
Willa steps behind her mother’s wheelchair, allowing the wheels to track the field where her mother grew up, taking her back to her childhood home lost — another theft — to “eminent domain” — bringing the past back to life for her mother to witness. And in close parallel to her brother’s identity as a murderer, Willa helps her mother die to relieve her suffering. Parkinson’s has stolen her mother’s life, and Willa is a thief as well, giving her mother’s life the final blow. Zeb taught his sister to steal at an early age. They would raid their rich neighbors’ homes to help their mother afford medicine or to take something as simple as a man’s belts to keep their nemesis of a neighbor from abusing his dog.
Zeb, in his effort to give life back to his family, steals. By trying to save an abused neighbor, he takes a life. With his desire to see his sister again before he dies — a poignant reunification scene the novel builds up to and earns so much I can feel its power and tenderness every time I think of it — salvation seems possible only through thievery.
While Willa also steals, the arc of her story flies upward, like the bird she refers to throughout the novel — the bird in her chest, fluttering around in fear, set free in the end. She is finally able to face a real relationship with Christina, her lover rarely mentioned yet hovering around the edges of the story. In Morrison’s speech, the bird is language, and the children holding the bird in their hands are responsible for allowing language to thrive or die. For Loren, however, the bird seems to be more than language. In an irony that fits how Loren brings opposing forces together, the flying creature feels grounded in her hands, connected to both land and sky, even water and death. The metaphor feels like the very consciousness of Willa’s inner self, the emotion and motivation behind every action and thought.
In the first scene of the book, Zeb shoots a meadowlark and Willa drowns it to relieve its suffering (foreshadowing what she does for her mother). The spirit of the meadowlark remains inside Willa, in her years of tracking to save the Mexican wolf — the wild and predatory creature that the land requires to thrive — and in her desperate attempt to save Zeb — the predator mountain man equal to his adult nemesis and spiritual guide, the mountain lion, and also a Robinhood committing minor crimes to help his small community.
Willa tracks Zeb toward his death. The big fish she failed to catch when they were kids has always been free, and yet as Zeb glories in the thought of dying, of merging with the mountain lion, and while he knows precisely how to map both her tracks and his own, he is lost. We would expect him to be the one saying “My mother is a fish,” because he connects with those he loves through the lens of death and unconscious instinct, yet Willa is the one who identifies both herself and her mother as a fish, through the lens of a conscious life.
Loren uses both literary and biblical allusion — Jesus lifting fish from the water as they jump up like praying hands — to play with a familiar metaphor, to unify the literary and the spiritual, the conscious and the unconscious, air and water and land, to free up meaning, and to allow the reader to feel the emotion of her characters’ inner lives. She also changes points of view, giving the reader a stronger sense of each character from multiple perspectives. And she changes tense — putting the past into present tense and the present into the past, merging time into one sensation of a character’s inner life.
The wolf Raymond cages for her own protection is let loose. The inexplicable foundation of love connects the imprisoned and the prisoner, predator and prey, the living and the dead, parent and child, friends and lovers, sister and brother. All that is stolen and lost remains permanent in the rising and falling arc of a good story, as Ruth’s drowned mother in Housekeeping rises from the lake alive in her daughter’s imagination interwoven with memory. Here, in Theft, the recovery of what is lost is grounded in reality with legs that leap and run while taking flight into the mystery of the spiritual. Loss and love coexist in Loren’s lyrical words and in the life-centered emotion of Willa:
Raymond gives the word. We pull. The crate breaks apart, and Ciela runs. Her long legs stretch out as far as they can, a wide open gait, and then she is gone.
That trapped bird in my ribcage — it flies every time we do this. It flies again and again, and there’s a soreness from the release and an emptiness in my chest, and I’m filled to the brim with it all.