In the opening pages of Mile 21, a new novel written by Sarah Dunster (one of our featured poets in the journal this month) and published by Cedar Fort Press, we meet Abish Miller, the protagonist. Abish is the kind of girl who glares at her co-workers in her part-time student job on campus at BYU-Idaho and argues with her parents. But she also works as a volunteer chaplain at the local hospital, visiting patients who would otherwise spend their days alone. When she leaves work and the hospital, she runs like someone is chasing her. In other words, Abish is complicated. And prickly. We soon learn that some of Abish’s prickliness comes because she’s grieving the loss of her husband, Mark, who died a year earlier. I think we often have preconceived ideas about widows, and especially about young widows– that they bear their loss with grace and a stiff upper lip, but Abish is raw and rubbed down to the bone. She’s not coping well, except when she runs.
Dunster’s previous novel, Lightning Tree, was historical fiction (an excerpt of which won our fiction contest a few years back), and while Mile 21 definitely has elements of a romance, it’s much more an exploration of Abish’s own character. She recognizes early on in the novel that she needs to change (actually, she might be content to exist in her grief, but her boss and her parents give her ultimatums that force her to start healing), and while she fights this change at many turns, dating the wrong kinds of guys, breaking the law, as well as the normal things readers might expect of twenty-one-year-old college students, she eventually does start to heal.
While Dunster does an excellent job showing the depth and complexity of Abish’s character, revealing details that explain her crustiness and her pain without exactly justifying them, the novel is about more than just Abish. She writes about Rexburg, Idaho and the surrounding countryside with such authority, affection, and clear-headedness that they almost become another character in the novel. I loved the descriptions of the streets and the farms that Abish passes as she runs, and Dunster forces readers to look at some of the inherent contradictions in a community that is as predominantly Mormon as Rexburg.
As a runner, reading about someone who uses running as therapy and works through her problems by running long miles along really resonated with me. I think Dunster gets the details right here too– after a while, running is less about breathing and sore quads, and a lot more about getting outside and working oneself into a meditative state. Readers who want to go to some hard and dark places with a character and see some ultimate redemption will enjoy Mile 21. Who knows– they may even be inspired to start running marathons.