In the dead of winter

AMY Espeseth was 13 years old when she killed her first animal. The US-born author, who lives in Melbourne, shot a fawn with a .44 magnum rifle in a forest near her childhood home in Barron, Wisconsin.

The young deer had followed a doe past Espeseth's hunting stand, where she had been waiting silently for hours with her younger brother while their father watched from another stand.

''It was a moment like in a car crash in which time slowed down,'' Espeseth says of the instant she pulled the trigger. ''And when I heard that animal scream - as it did, and they don't always, but it just kept screaming - I couldn't make it stop, so I just shot and shot 'til it stopped.''

The occasion is not one Espeseth recalls with anguish or regret. She was raised in a strict Pentecostal family, for whom hunting and fishing were as natural a part of growing up as going to school. For as long as she can remember, she had accompanied her father into the wilderness, learning how to shoot and observing bushcraft so that when the moment arrived to prove herself, she was ready.

''And it was a great shot,'' she says. ''I felt very proud. It was a moment of achievement and my father was proud of me. My little brother whooped.''

The aftermath of that day is the prologue of Espeseth's debut novel, Sufficient Grace.

A girl and a boy help their father hang three carcasses in a tree after hunting deer. The girl is the story's 13-year-old narrator, Ruth. Despite feeling proud of her success, Ruth is embarrassed to see the white spots on the hindquarters of the fawn she has killed, but she had drawn an antlerless shooting permit, ''so he was mine to take, baby or not''.

The passage ends with Ruth wondering which of the three slabs of venison swaying in the trees - resembling the crucifixion - might be the two thieves. She recites part of a hymn, At the Cross, by 18th-century English theologian Isaac Watts. Throughout the novel, hymn and prayer punctuate Ruth's thoughts.

The intertwining of religion with nature and family communion lies at the heart of Sufficient Grace, a story about Norwegian descendants living in an isolated Pentecostal fundamentalist community in rural Wisconsin.

Ruth's family includes her younger brother, Reuben, and her teenage cousins, Samuel and Naomi, an adopted Native American. Set in the harsh Wisconsin winter, the novel focuses on the relationship between Ruth and Naomi.

Espeseth, 37, pulls no punches in telling this story. It explores loss of innocence through rape, incest, teenage pregnancy and infant death, all of which arise from the errant behaviour of a character who faces violent retribution. At the same time, the novel portrays the familial and spiritual prosperity of a group defined by religious and cultural conviction. Like their namesakes in the Bible's Book of Ruth, Ruth and Naomi love each other beyond circumstance, beyond what happens to them, but also beyond the men in their lives. ''It shows there is a relationship between women that doesn't have to be completely structured around men,'' Espeseth says.

Her background has many similarities to this story. Her family in the US, including an older sister and an adopted sister from Hong Kong, are members of an evangelical Pentecostal Christian sect known as the Foursquare Church, which interprets the Bible's teachings literally and believes the Holy Spirit grants gifts such as speaking in tongues, healings and prophecy. It is similar to the Assemblies of God Pentecostal movement in Australia named the Hillsong Church.

Speaking in tongues is a controversial aspect of the religion. Outsiders claim it is gibberish; practitioners, such as Ruth's grandmother in Sufficient Grace, treat it as the word of God.

Espeseth says her partner, Aaron Manion, an Irish-Australian author with a Catholic background, finds it hard to come to terms with the practice when they visit her family in the US.

''When people speak in tongues and exercise gifts of the spirit, it is difficult for him, although he is respectful,'' Espeseth says. ''For me, it is as normal as bursting into song as you drive along in the car listening to the radio … It's just the way you express yourself.''

In the novel, Espeseth tries to re-create the experience of growing up in a religious home and the way religion in that environment pervades every aspect of life. ''Even now as an adult, and I've been away from home for 20 years, whatever happens in my life, whatever I see and think, I can think of a scripture or a hymn or the words of prayer for every situation.

''When that is your faith, it is a very reassuring way to live. For others, it is a very intrusive thought process. But I hope I have shown both the beauty and the difficulty of having someone else's thoughts inside your head.''

As to whether the tragedy affecting Ruth and Naomi in the novel is based on reality, she says ''most families have their secrets, especially in very closed, isolated communities, especially religious isolation or geographic isolation''.

''And they tend to have these problems, such as teenage pregnancy, as well as rape and family problems, so I do write from experiences that I have had but that probably is as much as an answer as I would like to give.''

Espeseth's ancestors are Norwegian, a significant immigrant group in Wisconsin.

Her family owned farmland around Barron but rented it to neighbours because her father works in construction (like Ruth's father) and her mother, a teacher, is an administrator. Hunting and fishing are Wisconsin's main recreational activities.

The state borders the Great Lakes and is almost 50 per cent forest. Children are permitted to shoot animals from the age of 11. Espeseth describes Wisconsin as ''a beautiful place but inhospitable to people''.

''It is a violently cold place, one of the coldest places in the world,'' she adds, ''so hunting keeps your family fed during those very long winters.''

When she was 18, Espeseth left home to attend a university in Oklahoma run by a televangelist. Her father was disappointed the move forced her to give up hunting. In the early 1990s, she studied English literature at a university in Minnesota. She began writing short stories, one of which was about a girl who grows up in circumstances similar to hers, the origin of Sufficient Grace.

In 1998, she moved to Melbourne after marrying an Australian she had met six months earlier in the US. ''We had decided to live in Wisconsin but one winter broke him. He could not do it,'' she says with a laugh. Their marriage lasted 10 years. She now lives with Manion in Alphington.

It wasn't until Espeseth came to Australia, though, that she began to take her writing seriously, eventually completing a master's degree in creative writing at the University of Melbourne in 2005. An early draft of Sufficient Grace formed part of the degree. She is the publisher of the small Vignette Press and teaches creative writing and publishing at the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE, while working on a PhD at the University of Melbourne.

Sufficient Grace won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2009. Her second novel, Trouble Telling the Weather, also set in Wisconsin and to be published in August next year, won this year's CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for writers 35 and over.

Espeseth attributes her main literary influences to the nature writings of Thoreau and Emerson, as well as American poet Wendell Berry. When she was a young girl, however, her reading was guided by her parents. ''It was religious writing: the Bible and hymns. It's quite obvious that's the cadence in which I think and work.''

A world of new ideas opened up when she was a young adult and university student. She discovered writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck and Isabel Allende. ''[Steinbeck's] The Grapes of Wrath had a huge impact on me: to see that stories didn't have to be about fancy people in fancy places; that dirt-poor farmers had as real and significant lives as people in the city,'' she says.

Espeseth no longer practises Pentecostalism. ''My mother would say I am not currently enjoying God's providence,'' she says. But around her writing desk are a collection of stuffed birds and animals and other artefects from Wisconsin that connect her to the nature and traditions of her childhood.

''I miss some of the expressions of my faith,'' she says. ''Sometimes I fall into a hymn hole, as I call them, where I get stuck listening to my old hymns on the internet … The difficulty is there is no returning to that time and place. It doesn't exist any more, and who I am now is such a disconnect from who I was as a child or as a young woman.''

Sufficient Grace is published by Scribe at $29.95.

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