Back to Nature

While the story of 'Waking the Ancients' is hard to believe, the tale is entertaining, and the characters are gripping

Whether or not you'll get into this new Southwest thriller may depend on how much disbelief you're willing to suspend. Could you accept, for example, that a grown-up rich kid would relinquish his Philadelphia colonial to relocate to a cliff dwelling? That he'd do it for a sage-smoking Hohokam-wannabe named Howlin' Jim? That they'd be able to hijack the kid's whole family, turn them into a tribe that feasts on roasted gila monster, and hold them indefinitely in some spot between Payson and Flagstaff? That a female corporate vice president would abandon her regular manicure to hang out with a longhaired, sinewy guy who talks to spirits but shuts up women?

If you can be hooked into those--along with some calling-up of folks long dead and deer hunting without a license--Waking the Ancients may well entertain you.

Writer Gail Wanman Holstein has some experience with the archeology and artifacts of the cultures central to her story. For years interested in the prehistoric peoples of the Southwest, she and her husband have curated an exhibit on Southwestern Indian art. That she got the idea for the plot on a camping trip while watching her husband "gather sage for a smudging ceremony" gives a bit of an unintentionally eerie resonance, and you've got to hope he's not named Jim.

Waking the Ancients opens with things already not right in the Branson Ellis household. Branson has divested himself--and, by extension, his family--of the BMW, the country club house, even the television set, and set them up in a tacky Phoenix suburb. Immersed in studying the local ancient peoples, Branson has taken to camping out and exploring ruins with a maverick archeologist. Wife Leah is not amused. While she has always placated her handsome husband, she did not go to Bryn Mawr to shop at swap meets or play second fiddle to the Anasazi.

When Branson proposes a camping trip to a little-known ruin, Leah welcomes some overdue family time. She packs for a weekend, loads up 8-year-old Alissa and 12-year-old Geoffrey, and they head up the interstate. After they turn off at Camp Verde, Branson gives them a little something to drink, and Leah and the children doze off. When they awake, it's late, and they're parked somewhere among pines. They pull on backpacks, and Branson leads them into the wilderness. Bushwhacking, twisting and backtracking through unfamiliar territory in the dark--at one point scaling a cliff face--they walk for hours before they reach their Sinagua cliff-dwelling destination. When they wake the next day, Leah gets an explanation for their unfathomable route: They're to live out Howlin' Jim's ideal society. Branson and Jim have colluded to free them all from the corruption of modern civilization and form a self-sustaining tribe to live together in the manner of early Indians.

Leah is even less amused.

With her maps and compass missing, she has no geographical bearings. She finds herself the only holdout to this project. Jim has seduced two others into the plan--a potty-mouthed teenager (whom he designates an appropriate mate for young Geoffrey) and Leah's best friend, the formerly smart and sassy BJ (whom he's designated for himself). Branson, she discovers, has also recruited Geoffrey, and Howlin' Jim has begun separating him from his mother. Leah feels she's losing her husband.

Once Holstein has established her premise, she moves her plot right along. The central conflict is between Leah and Jim, but minor conflicts branch out from it: Branson's struggle to prove his worth to Jim; the confusion of sexual and emotional allegiances Jim causes Branson and Leah; the ambiguity of a supernatural communing with the ancients; the imposition of the oh-so-not-21st-century male dominance; the distant rupture of Branson's CEO father from his own roots. And those don't include the problems related to shelter, food and population replacement.

Holstein has created a faceted, sympathetic character in Leah Ellis. The reader cringes as she fawns for any attention Branson might toss her; is heartened when she begins to step up to her role as alpha female. The Ellis kids, too, are developed, appealing characters whose well being you want preserved. Holstein's Howlin' Jim is a pretty convincing bad boy, but you don't get as much of the flip-side charisma that would attract this crew into the wilds.

Waking the Ancients isn't going to replace a trip to the Arizona State Museum to meet your Hohokam quota, but it does tell a suspenseful, cultures-related story that's hard to put down. If not for a beach read, consider picking it up for a road trip, a little camp out, this summer's canyon hike ... or even a Mogollon Rim hike. Just watch out for painted white guys peddling sage.