In her debut short story collection Site Fidelity, Claire Boyles has tapped into a largely untouched goldmine of stories about environmental issues in the American West, and the people involved in the often-lonely fights for their jobs, their land and their resources on a changing planet. By writing this book, Boyles provides a peek into the fascinating world of niche environmental policy that is usually perceived as too dull and complex for most people to care about.
Boyles is a Coloradan and a former sustainable farmer, and it’s immediately apparent she knows what she’s doing, both as a writer and an environmentalist. The book is heavily character-driven, but every story takes place amid a fairly complicated setting involving environmental issues that don’t typically get a lot of attention in fiction. Boyles deftly explains these situations without coming across as dogmatic, connecting problems that might seem theoretical to people whose lives are immensely impacted by them.
Site Fidelity’s first story, “Ledgers,” is about an ornithologist named Norah who studies birds “most people haven’t heard of and might not ever” and is fixated on saving the Gunnison sage grouse, an endangered species in Southwestern Colorado. Having a difficult time finding anyone else to care about the cause, she feels as endangered as the birds, knowing her “best efforts to save them will never be enough.”
The title of the book comes from this story, and it is a perfect two-word summary of its entire theme. “Site fidelity”—a species “loving their land so much they’ll die without it”—is what connects all the central characters in the book. Most of them are women who have a lot on their plates, usually involving the men in their lives. Still, their connection to the land doesn’t falter, even when it feels like they’re in their fights alone.
Though this is ostensibly a book of separate short stories, all of them are related thematically and many have overlapping characters. The best of these involve three sisters named Ruth, Mano and Teresa, the last of whom is a nun and mostly referred to just as “Sister.” The relationship between these sisters is steadfast, brought closer by their individual relationships to the world around them. Though the other stories in the collection are strong, Site Fidelity could work as a novel focusing just on these three sisters, and I wouldn’t be surprised—or disappointed—if they reappear in Boyles’ later work.
In one of the stories featuring these women, “Sister Agnes Mary in the Spring of 2012,” Sister, the nun who also has a PhD in ecology, is pushing back on a new oil and gas drill site being built on her church’s campus, right behind the playground at the Catholic primary school. In this story, she’s in her seventies: a firebrand older woman who is an example of the range of characters Boyles is capable of depicting.
Throughout this story, Sister struggles with her faith in God because of her inability to stop the fracking rig that will cause devastation to her church community and the planet at large. Boyles shows this grappling in a unique fashion, while providing subtle elaboration about a character whom readers hadn’t interacted with much.
Sister is wise enough to know that “God’s laws and the church’s laws are not an exact match,” and this feels like a really honorable way to portray a character who has clearly thought a lot about her faith, and is steadfast despite the fallibility of man.
At the end of this story, Sister locks herself to a piece of drilling equipment in protest. As she waits to be found, she “listens intently for a response from heaven but hears only the owls in the distance, near one another, calling back and forth.” Sister prays: “When you called us to protect your creation, this is what you meant, right?” and in return, God is silent with the “heavy sum of the million tiny silences that have built Sister’s faith.” This isn’t a simple story about losing your religion: in less than 20 pages, it demonstrates an impressive thoughtfulness on Boyles’ part. The characters in this book range in age, political affiliation and specific life circumstances, but are all driven by “site fidelity,” even if they don’t say it explicitly.
Site Fidelity is an impressive collection of stories that exudes kindness and warmth for its characters and a clear passion for its central thesis. In one of the best similes in the book—and there are many good ones—“sister love” is compared to a “gas [that] could lift the barometric pressure of the entire atmosphere if you needed it to.” Boyles crafts beautiful sentences easily, and the dialogue is realistic and illustrates genuine relationships between characters.
However, it’s necessary to point out that this book does little if anything to challenge the predominantly white face of environmentalism and environmental writing. It’s curious that a book about human attachment to—and destruction of—land and nature fails to even tangentially mention the genocide of indigenous people from the very spaces Boyles writes about so endearingly. It is especially disappointing that this collection looks at environmental crises and climate change from a colorblind lens, when its effects are so racially disparate. Given the diversity of characters and themes in the book, it is disheartening that she didn’t include the perspectives of indigenous people and other people of color who are already being severely impacted by the climate crisis.
During a period where record-breaking droughts across the West are threatening Native American tribal water rights and forest fires are endangering their sacred spaces, as well as further displacing communities of color in the region, a book about water and land use in the West that doesn’t explicitly include the perspectives of Native Americans and people of color is more than just fiction: it’s revisionist history. And especially at this point, it may be too much to overlook.
Despite these omissions, Site Fidelity is a solid debut collection by a writer to watch out for. It is a noble pursuit to challenge the traditionally masculine mythology of the American West, and I have no doubt that Boyles cares deeply about the environment and the nitty-gritty details of land management debates. Even as the climate crisis is visibly worsening, there remains a group of skeptics who aren’t swayed by traditional reporting. Creating fictionalized stories about these urgent but often inaccessible issues might be the best way to drive change from people who may not otherwise be inclined to care.
By Claire Boyles
W.W. Norton & Company
Published June 15, 2021