One of the most overlooked works of George R. Stewart is the remarkable novel Sheep Rock. Stewart considered it one of his “ecological novels;” or, as he put it, a novel about “all the things that go to make up a place.”
It is set in a harsh desert place, somewhere in Nevada. The book has a double focus – a recurring set of characters commenting on the place; and a young poet, trying to write a poem about the place. This double focus challenges the reader to keep things straight and understandable.
But keeping those two foci straight is only the beginning of the demands made on the readers. The book is divided into three parts, each named after a landform in the area. Each of those parts reveals more of the place’s physical and historical geography; each reveals more of the poet’s tale; and each has a short story about one of the artifacts that the poet finds during his wanders around the site.
But Sheep Rock is more than an attempt to describe or understand one place. In other work by Stewart, the ecosystem is the protagonist, but is represented by an ecological event – the storm, the fire, the virus. Here, instead of singling out one of these natural events as representative of the ecosystem, Stewart uses the entire ecosystem and history of the place as the protagonist. The place is on every page of the novel; humans are not.
George R. Stewart called the novel “Three times round and three times round.” It is not a read for those with lazy minds – the novel takes work to read. Yet it is an exhilarating book, because he breaks the rules, catches readers by surprise, then thrills them with something new that works.
The two commentators – they appear in a prologue, what might be called “interlogues” between the main parts, and in an epilogue – are not unlike a Greek chorus. But instead of commenting on the story of the poet they comment on changes they see in the place over 15 or 20 years.
Then, in the middle of the epilogue, in which can confuse readers – or exhilarate them – the author steps out of the work, and describes how he researched and wrote it. Since the book is no longer in copyright, I’ll share part of that:
I, George Stewart, did this work….
I have looked into the blue and green depths of the spring, and have climbed
the rock, and gazed out across the desert. That first night, the grim fascination of
the place rose within me, and I thought of this book.
That time I was with Charlie. I was there again—with Jack, with Selar, with
Carl and Parker and Starker, with Brig and Roy. I said to myself, “I shall know
more about this place than anyone knows of any place in the world.” So I took
the others there, and one looked at the beaches and the hills, and another at the
grass and the shrubs, and another at the stone-work among the hummocks, and
so it went, until at last each had shared with me what he knew. Besides, I read
The names he mentions are those of the greatest geographic and scientific minds of his time. Carl Sauer, Parker Trask, Charles Camp, Starker Leopold (Aldo Leopold’s son), Jack Stewart. Geographer, geologist, historian, paleontologist, wildlife biologist.
Stewart tells readers how he wrote all his books, especially his novels of the ecosystem. He took those colleagues with him to the places he was writing about. There, they educated him about the natural and human history of a place – its geography, or ecology. Then he wove their knowledge into narrative, as the poet of the place.
Does it work? Ken Carpenter, Director of Special Collections at the University of Nevada Reno – UNR has the second largest Stewart collection – thought the book was a failure, and Stewart knew it. Carpenter points out that, in his oral history, Stewart mentions Sheep Rock more than any other work. Carpenter believes this emphasis on Sheep Rock results from Stewart’s dissatisfaction with the work. (Stewart’s Oral History, A Little of Myself, is now online and can be downloaded.)
On the other hand, Josephine Miles, Stewart’s colleague in the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and the first female University Professor at Cal, thought it was a tremendous success, a new kind of work of fiction that broke the boundaries of the traditional novel or short story.
“Three times round and three times round,” and attempting to use precise intellectual study of the place and narrating the poet’s search for a belief system would qualify the novel for consideration as post-modernist. That’s why a scholar of Robinson Jeffer’s work calls the book “post-modernist.”
Successful or not, post-modernist or not, the novel is a great read for anyone who interested in place. That’s both because it is one of the most thorough-going attempts to understand a place in fiction, and because it’s a pleasure to watch how Stewart has structured the work.