“Martin Marten” – or How Humans and Nature are Not Two Separate Things

This week I finished reading two very different books: Martin Marten by Brian Doyle and The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake. They are both excellent in different ways, and I recommend both – to students of society, nature, and human nature. Next week I’ll share my thoughts on The Skin I’m In.

Martin Marten caught my eye, because as some of you know, I am currently obsessed with minks. I am deep into writing a novel about a mink and her family. Minks and martens are both in the mustelid family, which also includes fishers, weasels, and skunks.

Martin Marten is the fictional story about a teenaged boy named Dave and – you guessed it – a wild marten. Their paths cross frequently on the side of Mt. Hood, Oregon over the period of almost two years. The story also weaves in and around the lives of several other interesting characters living on Mt. Hood.

Doyle, who sadly passed too young last year, had a unique style of writing. The two most notable aspects are that he did not use quotation marks, and while the story is written in third person omniscient, he often wrote in second person (which means he talks directly to the reader). Doyle’s self-stated reason for the lack of quotations was that we don’t stop living, thinking, or doing when we are talking. He wanted to keep the reader’s flow of thought going as they read through dialogue without being tripped by those interrupting tags. Other than me sometimes thinking the character was thinking when they were speaking, it works. You get used to it and go with the flow, which was obviously Doyle’s plan. I’m not sure I’ll try this in my writing, but Doyle had a terrific gift of voice (plus lots more experience than I have). Speaking directly to the reader is not rare, especially in literary magazines. Many writers use that technique, including the beloved Kate DiCamillo and the legendary Mark Twain. But, Doyle did it a lot. It is peppered throughout. And it’s lovely, truly charming. I as the reader felt as if I was part of the story, being drawn in to this living world.

Doyle’s commentaries on both human nature and the natural world is educational and entertaining at the same time. And he effectively reminds us that we humans are part of the natural world – it is not a separate thing from us. Are his portraits of various humans realistic? Not always. In Martin Marten there’s a six-year-old with more insight than Ghandi and high school athletic coaches with all the kindness of Mother Theresa. But that’s ok. It’s fiction. It can be whatever the author wants it to be. And although these things aren’t real (wild martens don’t save little girls lost in the snow), Doyle cracks open a window of possibilities and allows us to consider these in our everyday lives. Maybe that sensitive six-year-old you know does see the world in a way that could save us. Perhaps that basketball coach does really care that his players grow up with fine character and the wisdom needed to succeed in winning and losing in life. Maybe that considerate fur trapper truly does care about wildlife on the mountain more than any dye-tossing screaming PETA enthusiast. Just maybe. And this is what fiction is all about. The maybes. Thank you, Mr. Doyle. You will be greatly missed.

If you are interested in reading about the winsome characters – human and non-human around the fictional town of Zig Zag, Oregon, Marten Martin was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015. And if you’ve read any of Doyle’s work I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

P.S. Doyle also wrote the critically acclaimed Mink River, which (sadly for me) is not actually about minks. That story is about the human characters in a fictional Oregon coast town called Mink River. I look forward to diving into that one at some point.

Thanks for reading and have a great week!

3 thoughts on ““Martin Marten” – or How Humans and Nature are Not Two Separate Things”

  1. Excellent review! Makes me want to read the book. I remember driving through the town of Zigzag as a kid every time we went to Mt Hood.

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