All That We Carried – Erin Bartels

All That We Carried Erin Bartels
All That We Carried by Erin Bartels
Published by Revell on January 5, 2021
Genres: Fiction, General
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five-stars

Ten years ago, sisters Olivia and Melanie Greene were on a backcountry hiking trip when their parents were in a fatal car accident. Over the years, they grew apart, each coping with the loss in her own way. Olivia plunged herself into law school, work, and a materialist view of the world--what you see is what you get, and that's all you get. Melanie dropped out of college and developed an online life-coaching business around her cafeteria-style spirituality--a little of this, a little of that, whatever makes you happy.

Now, at Melanie's insistence (and against Olivia's better judgment), they are embarking on a hike in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. In this remote wilderness they'll face their deepest fears, question their most dearly held beliefs, and begin to see that perhaps the best way to move forward is the one way they had never considered.

Michigan Notable Book Award winner Erin Bartels draws from personal experience hiking backcountry trails with her sister to bring you a story about the complexities of grief, faith, and sisterhood.

It’s been ten years since Melanie and Olivia have had any meaningful sisterly interactions. It’s also been ten years since their parents were killed in crash that sent their car over a mountain. These two things are not coincidental. There was just so little to hold them together without their parents. Melanie the super-spiritual life coach/influencer; Olivia the rational, no-nonsense lawyer. But when Melanie suggests that they both go on a hiking trip through the mountains of Michigan to rekindle their relationship, Olivia reluctantly joins in.

All That We Carried is a deeply personal, thoughtful exploration of dealing with pain and grief. Bartels makes this storyline her almost-singular focus. Occasional flashback sequences give insight to the sisters’ childhoods. An enigmatic fisherman named Josh makes an appearance or two, but the vast majority of the book is simply the journey and the conversation along the trail.

It would have been very easy for a book like this to seem formulaic as the characters (and the reader) trudge from plot point to plot point with enough conversational exposition to tie the two together along the way. It’s a tried and true storytelling method and while it’s an easy setup, it’s difficult to make shine. Erin Bartels makes it shine.

At the risk of sharing too much, the novel’s careful imagery is what helps it stand out, (SPOILER WARNING!) from the packs on their back representing the emotional weight of their loss, to the need to abandon those packs in their final, literal, trial by fire. There’s also a Mary and Martha vibe to the two sisters: Melanie as the emotional and intuitive Mary; Olivia as the rational and action-oriented Martha. The enigmatic fisherman Josh is almost instantly telegraphed as the Jesus character. (Why are all the Joshes in fictions always depictions of Jesus and never of me?) And the symbol of journeying toward emotional health and reconciliation looms large throughout the book. (END SPOILERS!)

All That We Carried doesn’t quite have the depth or complexity that I’d seen in Bartels’ other work, but I don’t think it needed to. It was different than what I was expecting, but not necessarily in a bad way. I do wish that some story elements had been expanded and that some reveals would have been a bit stronger for the characters. Just a little more depth—even if that meant fifty more pages—would have really sold this book for me. Still, Bartels’s strength of storytelling carries readers confidently to the end with an enjoyable, poignant, and introspective look on how different people handle grief.

five-stars