Back in March, I attended the Tucson Festival of Books. While I was there, I went to a lecture by Claiborne Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Kirkus Media, who spoke eloquently about the importance of indie authors giving back to their communities. What he said really resonated with me, and as a result, I decided to make a commitment to read and review more books by indie authors. So far, I am doing pretty well with this commitment. Since March, I have read seven books by seven different indie authors, and posted reviews for all of them on Amazon and Goodreads.
Today, I wanted to single out one to share with you, a beautifully written work by Susan DeFreitas called Hot Season. I met Susan at the Tucson Festival of Books. We sat next to each other in the author’s booth and very much enjoyed talking about our books and experiences as authors. Little did I realize then that Susan would soon be making some rather large waves in the world of indie authors. In May, Susan won a gold medal IPPY award for Hot Season.
Susan’s book focuses on a group of people concerned with saving a river threatened from over-development in a town that is suddenly booming. The story is told from the viewpoints of four young women, all struggling to find themselves to varying degrees. Their lives intertwine through their interest in the river and also through their mutual attraction to one particular, eccentric young man. The plot heats up like a hot desert day, each degree adding to the risk of wildfire, both in the inner and outer landscapes of these women. The book leaves the reader pondering some big questions. How far are we willing to go for our beliefs, and can we ever truly know the full impact of our actions? In the face of uncertainty, is it better to risk everything or stay on the sidelines?
When I sat down to interview Susan, I learned that Hot Season is the first three books planned for this series. Each book will have different characters, but they will all be set in roughly the same timeframe, in the town of Prescott, Arizona, and they will all revolve around the same environmental issue: the fight to save a river.
The detailed setting for the book, the town’s unscrupulous desire for progress, and the devastating impact their plans would have had on the health of the river are not fiction. This was the landscape Susan encountered when she was an undergrad (nearly twenty years ago) at Prescott College. The college appealed to Susan because it was known for being a very idealistic, activist school. Susan ended up loving the physical and social environment there so much that after graduation she remained in the area for the next fourteen years. The characters in her book are all composites of people that came in and out of her life over the course of those years.
Like the central character in this book, Rell, Susan had a house in the barrio section of town, and often rented out rooms to students at the college. Also, like Rell, Susan was a bit older, a bit wiser, and had a broader perspective on life that her younger roommates often lacked. Susan admits to always being a little more cautious with her idealism. She wanted to make a difference and wanted to protect the natural world, but she struggled with the radical extremes some people were willing to go to for their beliefs.
Susan has always been someone who could see and appreciate both sides of a conflict. For her, the answer was never simple or obvious. Her life experiences taught her that there was never only one right way to approach difficult problems. You had to allow each person to play to their own strengths in a way that felt right to them, even if their path seemed extreme. She came to realize that these differing degrees of passion were needed to allow enough people to come together to save the world.
You don’t have to look far to discover where Susan learned to care so deeply about the environment. She learned this from her mother. Back in the 1970’s, Susan’s mom helped to found a back-to-the-land community cooperative in the countryside in Michigan. People joined her family, coming from many different walks of life, all of them pursuing an ideal of ecological self-sufficiency, and living a life much more intimately connected to the land. Susan knows that the established farmers in the area loved to tell amusing greenhorn stories about this unusual group. Just imagine, she says laughingly, the looks on the faces of these modern-day farmers as they watched a bunch of city folks eschewing tractors by plowing their fields with horses.
Susan says this chapter of her childhood became a big part of her identity. It will also be the focus of her second book. The central characters in book two will all be part of a back-to-the-land cooperative, although in this case, this collective will be placed in Prescott, Arizona, not Michigan. Much of the humor will come from this group’s lack of preparedness in taking on the much more difficult farming terrain of the high desert. Susan says this second story will be for her a kind of love song to the kind of people she grew up with.
I asked Susan—and I don’t think it will be a spoiler if I tell you—what happened to the Verde River that she portrays so vividly in Hot Season. In the end, it wasn’t activism that saved it. There were two events that threw a wrench in the town’s plans. One was that the bottom fell out of the housing market. Many development projects went belly up, including the developments that would have depended on water from the Big Chino Aquifer. The second was a lawsuit that was filed against the town of Prescott by the Salt River Project in Phoenix, which found that plan threatening to the health of the Salt River, which is a main source of water for Phoenix. These two events were enough for the city of Prescott to halt their plans. But Prescott still owns the Big Chino Aquifer, so the final chapter on the fate of the Verde River is yet to be written.
I read Hot Season in my desert home during a heat wave. Day after day, temperatures soared into the triple digits, and under this intense pressure cooker, fires broke out both to the north and south of me. My little valley was filled with plumes of smoke from the burning landscapes all around. The fire to the south was located in Susan’s old stomping grounds near Prescott. It was called the Goodwin Fire and it was huge, reminding many people of the devastating Yarnell Fire that claimed the lives of nineteen wildlands firefighters just a few years back. It seemed, as I read, that there was no dividing line between Hot Season’s fictional landscape and my own.
Yesterday the monsoons finally arrived in Sedona. They brought with them a very welcome relief from the heat and dryness. But monsoons tend to have a lot of electrical activity, so they can also add to the fire danger. My husband and I watched as several lightning strikes hit the mesa to the south of us, lighting up the dry terrain just ahead of the bands of rain. I’m thinking now of those back-to-the-land farmers that Susan is planning to introduce us to in her next book. The high desert is a challenging landscape, and their resourcefulness will be tested, but they will know success as well. The very wet winter this year, combined with the intense heat of June, produced record crops around here. I’ve already harvested hundreds of apricots from my one apricot tree, and all five of my peach trees are just loaded as well. The other day, Mark and I went into Camp Verde because we’d heard that the corn at Hauser’s farm was ready. When we got there, we found the bins piled high with freshly harvested corn, and the smell of that sweet corn hung like a heavy perfume in the air. We went a little further down the road, at the recommendation of the woman selling the corn, to a pick-your-own tomato field and brought home a haul of beautiful tomatoes as well. This place is called the Verde Valley for a reason. Susan’s farmers will do just fine here.
If you want to learn more about Susan, you can go to her website here: http://susandefreitas.com/
The Amazon link to Hot Season can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Hot-Season-Susan-DeFreitas/dp/1941861288