Whenever I go camping, Murphy’s Law goes into effect. Immediately. For example:
- My first camping trip was in high school at Minnesota’s Boundary Waters with diehard campers, canoeing and traversing portages. It rained 3 solid days in a row—the novelty got me through.
- Years later in Wisconsin, our tents leaked at night. My husband and I had to hang sleeping bags to dry under a tarp during the day. They were still soggy at bedtime.
- During a hike along the Appalachian trail with hubby Tim and a few of his male high school students, we got drenched before we even reached our campsite. We decided not to camp. Eventually, I found myself in a cruddy men’s restroom with three teenage boys while we waited for Tim. He hitchhiked to get down the mountain faster to retrieve the car.
- When my sons were in upper elementary, we camped with people from church. It poured rain. But my boys loved it. The muddier, the better. They tramped all over the woods in it. Nothing was untouched by mud—including clothes, sleeping bags, our tent, and my car interior.
A sense of humor is essential if one wants to do more than merely survive. Despite our getting waterlogged, each of those mishaps was marked by laughter.
Eventually, I quit camping altogether. Now the extent of my bouts with nature are days of hiking here and there. One day at a time. My sister Carol and I hike annually at Saugatuck Dunes in Michigan (no backpacks needed).
Our time together is nowhere near as tumultuous as sisters Olivia and Melanie in All That We Carried by Erin Bartels. And no matter how much wet gear I’ve handled over the years, it’s not nearly the bulk that Olivia and Melanie tote. Both physically and emotionally.
Back Cover Blurb
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.
“That’s not fair.” How many times have you said or heard that line? We all have our own measuring stick for fair, and most of life doesn’t measure up. But if it did, would that make the difference between embracing happiness and barely hanging on?
“You’ve got to stop thinking in terms of fair. Fair is the bare minimum of happiness.
It’s not positive. It’s not negative. It’s just zero.
You want to live your life striving to achieve zero?”
— Justin in All That We Carried
This is just one of many quotes in All That We Carried that gave me pause. Much food for thought here.
Life sure wasn’t fair to Olivia and Melanie, who lost their parents in a car crash ten years prior. Even worse, instead of clinging to each other, they grew further apart, each handling grief in her own way. And that distance seemed to be bothering only one of them. Melanie.
Melanie finally gets Olivia to agree to a backpacking trip—with ulterior motives. The baggage they carry amounts to way more than what one can stuff into a backpack. Time to deal with their parents’ deaths and the Great Divide between the sisters.
Melanie hopes to bridge that gap. She desires reconciliation—even with information that could sever them further.
Their personality differences are barriers enough. Olivia is a prosecutor. Justice matters more than anything. Proof is the bottom line, and there’s no proof for God. Organized and hyper-vigilant, with a healthy dose of foresight, she knows what’s needed for a camping trip, and comes prepared.
Melanie is a compassionate, empathetic life coach and blogger who dabbles in a smorgasbord of spiritual beliefs. You might say “Que sera, sera” is her mantra. Foresight is not her forte.
This story holds no easy answers, no sudden revelations, no platitudes or formulas. Which adds to the realism. The questioning of which paths to take through the forest in the Porcupine Mountains echos the ultimate questions of spiritual direction, or lack of it.
The concept of “two steps forward, one step back” applies to the sisters’ hiking progress. However, their emotional connection is probably better characterized as “one step forward, two steps back.” So much hurt, anger, and bitterness lies between them.
If you don’t like arduous hiking experiences, you’ll be glad you can experience this one vicariously. Better yet, you’ll accompany the sisters on their emotional journey. That includes several interesting encounters with both bears and humans.
Interspersed are childhood scenes, showing the closeness their family once shared, adding to the poignancy. It’s tragic enough losing family members to a car crash that nobody plans for. It’s quite another when a sibling purposely walks away from a relationship. In this story, there are ten painful years to unravel.
The imagery makes you feel like you’re in the Upper Peninsula, hiking alongside Olivia and Melanie. You’ll experience the trees, the rocks, the rivers, with all the senses. Just as real as these two sisters. Their relationship rings true. Even efforts to be helpful easily fall flat and create more tension. Like real life.
Another thing I appreciated is the spiritual subtlety. I know many Christian readers who want the gospel spelled out in every book, or want the protagonist to finally believe in God, or trust Him in a new way. If that’s your preference, this story might not be for you.
But if you like the complexity of nuances and nebulous meanings in fiction, if you’re comfortable with a story providing more questions than answers, give this a try. It’s beautifully written, and its truths hold a mirror to the ambiguities and complexity of real life.
Erin Bartels does not write “Christian fiction.” Instead, she is a Christian author writing a good story. This novel lends itself to great book club discussion.
Join me for some Q &A with Erin Bartels.
Questions about All That We Carried
What inspired you to write this story? Did it grow out of your own backpacking experiences? How did you decide to use a camping trip as the basis for two sisters reconciling (or, at least, one of them attempting to reconcile)?
Erin: My older sister and I have taken about a half dozen backpacking trips through various parts of Michigan’s backcountry, including the Porcupine Mountains in the western Upper Peninsula where Olivia and Melanie are hiking. I like to stress that the sisters in the story are not me and my sister. We actually get along too well to be interesting characters in a novel. 🙂
But some of our experiences (and some of the things you plan for but hope will never happen) are represented in the narrative. I did sleep inches away from a bear one cold October night in northern Michigan. But thankfully nothing truly terrible has happened on a hike of ours. I also drew from a lifetime of being a close-in-age sister–all those little ways you get under each other’s skin.
What’s nice about using a backpacking trip as the setting/situation is that it is only going to be a certain length (in this case, about a week) and you force your characters into intimacy because they are never really apart. You can’t just get up and leave. You’re going to be walking together the whole way. So you have a little time to dig deeper into your issues and force some crisis points and some resolution.
What is your personal connection to the setting of Michigan and the North Woods?
Erin: I’ve lived in Michigan almost my entire life, and it is certainly the only place I remember living. As a child, I spent as much time as possible outdoors, often in trees, and as an adult I wanted to go hiking more after a trip with my husband’s family.
My sister has lived in northern Michigan most of her adult life, and she loves the outdoors as much as I do. It only made sense that we would hike together. And the best places to hike in Michigan are in the Upper Peninsula, though there are some respectable trails in the Lower Peninsula as well.
These trails are truly remote–cell phones really don’t work and some trails are really not well-traveled, especially in the off season, so if you get yourself into trouble, you have to deal with it. My sister and I were raised to be independent and solve our own problems, and we’re not big on crowds, so the remote North Woods are just our style.
How well did you know Olivia and Melanie before you started writing? How much did their characters evolve as you wrote?
Erin: I knew them both intimately, because they both represent different aspects of my own personality. As a child, I was a total Melanie, following butterflies and enjoying lingering in nature and just taking it all at face value. As an adult, I have become more like Olivia than I think I want to admit. I plan the hiking trips to a T, I anticipate problems and work out scenarios in my brain (What will I do if this happens? Then what will I do next?) I’m far more logical. I have less fun than I used to.
I actually wish at times I could rediscover parts of my inner Melanie, and I wish I had more empty time. It is nearly all spoken for now, and I dearly miss those days I would just walk around in a field taking pictures of spiderwebs and flowers and dragonflies.
Did the plot stick to a predetermined plan or did it change and grow as you wrote?
Erin: I don’t outline, so it didn’t really stick to a plan, per se. But, having said that, it didn’t deviate from my expectations or take any wild left turns I wasn’t anticipating. I knew how it started, I knew (basically) how it would end, and I knew the trail they would take (because it’s a real trail).
So writing it was just a matter of escalating tension and conflict at key points along the hike until every falls to pieces–so they could reach the point at which they could stop thinking mostly of themselves and start considering another point of view.
It’s a lot like hiking, actually. You have a map, you have a plan of some sort, a starting point and an ending point. But you don’t know what delights or challenges may pop up along the way.
Your characters are grappling with their parents’ death, and each sister is staunch in her own respective attitudes regarding death, God, and religion—neither of them based on Scripture. Your story is not heavy-handed with religion at all. What was your purpose in having your characters espouse such opposite worldviews? How do you want this to resonate with your readers?
Erin: The stances the sisters take and the logic behind their arguments (because there is logic to all of it, in one way or another) are all thoughts I’ve had or heard voiced at one time or another, by believers and non-believers (because plenty of believers have wacky ideas about spiritual matters that are not based in Scripture).
These are discussions that, if people don’t actually have them out loud, we all have in our heads at one time or another as we grapple with loss and with our own mortality. They are also topics we prefer to avoid thinking about if we don’t have to.
As far as purpose, I believe the best fiction asks questions and poses problems that the reader is then given the freedom to digest and come to their own conclusions about. The author should not be sticking her nose into the story to push an agenda. That’s cheating. That’s bad storytelling. I leave it to nonfiction to argue about specific answers. I leave it to apologetics texts and formal debates to explain everything in logical, step-by-step fashion. Fiction is about story, not preaching. Fiction is about empathy, not polemic. They are completely different modes of communication.
At its core, this is a story about two grieving women who are trying to construct worldviews that they think will help them cope with pain–and then showing the weaknesses, inconsistencies, and unsatisfactory nature of those cobbled-together belief systems.
As an author, I think that’s enough. Tiny steps toward one another and toward a more satisfying truth that is based in something older and deeper than pop culture. That’s all that can be expected of these characters in the space of a week.
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as a writer? Was there a book that sparked or confirmed your desire to be a novelist?
Erin: The more I think about this question, the more I realize that there are at least three equally important influences on my writing.
1.) The books I read as a child, which nearly always featured strong female leads, often operating in male-dominated spaces or roles, taking on challenges, and succeeding (though not without difficulty and personal growth). I’m talking stuff like Island of the Blue Dolphins, Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time, etc.
2.) The straightforward and charming storytelling style of Garrison Keillor, for whom ordinary things and ordinary people are significant without being exceptional or prodigies or The One (i.e., the only one who can save earth, mankind, etc.). Just regular people living unremarkable lives who still matter.
3.) The nonfiction of people like Bill Bryson or Tony Horwitz, both of whom pair/ed historical and present day narratives, teach/taught readers a TON about completely random subjects, and are/were just darn good storytellers. (Horwitz sadly died of cardiac arrest in 2019.)
Beyond those, I’d say next in line would be American Modernist writers, like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and T.S. Eliot, and British writers, like Virginia Woolf (and Eliot again, who was an American expat in Britain). And now that I’ve started listing them I could go on and on, which leads to the next bit…There was no particular book that compelled me to write my own. Just the slow, weighty accumulation of everything I’d ever read.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Share a couple of examples of how one of your stories grew from an initial idea.
Erin: Stories come from everywhere, usually as small bits and pieces at first, which slowly develop a gravitational pull that attracts other bits and pieces until the whole mess is big enough to sustain a novel-length treatment. They come from sudden flashes of a scene in my head, a bit of dialogue I think of that seems clever, a type of person or an interesting news item or even a title idea. And I don’t know that I could trace one particular conception-to-fruition line, because the process is not linear. It occupies all four dimensions, the 4th (time) being the most important. (More on that in the answer to the next question.)
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Erin: I once tried outlining a project because I was going to propose it to my publisher. Once I’d written the outline, I wasn’t very interested in writing the book anymore. It took all the fun of discovery out of it. Thankfully, my publisher didn’t want it anyway.
But I’m not a pure pantser either. I know a lot about a story and its characters before starting to write the first draft, and I have a general idea of how I want things to end up as far as the point I’m thinking of making.
Of course, all of that morphs and changes as I write, and the story inevitably becomes bigger and deeper and more impactful than I first thought it would be. And that’s the fun of writing for me–layering in meaning in draft after draft.
As far as time, it has taken me seven years and it has taken me one year. I’ve written a first draft in 65 days and another first draft might take nearly two years. Revisions may go on for years or I may have a deadline that doesn’t allow for that kind of leisurely writing. I prefer writing without a hard deadline, but when you have a contract to fulfill, you don’t really have a choice.
After I fulfill my current contract, I plan to write at a more leisurely pace and wait until I have a fully formed and polished manuscript before submitting anything. I’ve been going at a bit of a breakneck pace for the past several years, and I don’t think it is sustainable for me. The writing, first and foremost, has to be something I enjoy, not something that breeds anxiety.
Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author.
Erin: My goal is to never write the same book twice, for each novel that bears my name to be something a little different than what I wrote before. A common refrain I hear from readers is that the story they read was not quite what they expected. And I’d love to keep that going.
Part of the joy of writing for me is learning new things, considering new angles, delving into new problems. It may make branding more challenging, but it makes for a satisfying writing experience for me. And the moment writing novels no longer scratches that itch for me, that’s when I’ll stop writing them.
You were recently featured at a Baker Book House event as a Christian author who doesn’t necessarily write only for the Christian marketplace. Yet you are published with Revell, a Christian publisher. Can you explain more about how you see your role as an author, the readership you seek, and how that impacts the stories you write and the themes you employ?
Erin: My role as an author is to tell a good story. The reader I seek is the one who likes to read a good story. It’s as simple as that. And, to me, a good story is one where I, as a reader, can grow in some way, can learn a little more about people, can find more ways to understand people, can understand myself a little better.
I want to tackle hard things in my fiction—the stuff that we don’t always want to admit about ourselves. Because if we will take time to recognize and confront our own darkness first, we will be that much more patient, kind, and understanding with our fellow man. I guess you could say it’s partly about taking the plank out of our own eye before worrying about the speck in our brother or sister’s eye.
Fundamentally, I am interested in cause and effect and I am interested in people. I view the world and its issues (and my own issues) through a Christian lens, because that is my own particular belief system, but that doesn’t mean my characters will be Christians or my books will push a Christian agenda or present the gospel or anything like that. I’m just telling stories about people, here. Anyone of any faith (or no faith) can read, enjoy, and benefit from them.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Erin: Don’t fixate on one piece of writing. Yes, work on it, revise it, improve it. But don’t fixate. After you finish one thing, submit it. And while you’re submitting the one thing, start the next thing. Always move on to the next thing. Because the first thing may not hit. I know people who have been working on the same manuscript for a decade, tinkering and tweaking and not getting anywhere.
The first novel I finished, I submitted to dozens of agents. I got some good responses, a few R&Rs, and praise for my writing, but the story wasn’t there. Instead of endlessly revising the same thing that wasn’t working, I moved on. I took a year and wrote a short story every month because I wasn’t ready to write another novel. Then the next year, I did write another novel. And I started looking for an agent with that manuscript.
And while I was looking, I started writing another manuscript in case that one didn’t snag me an agent. I was just about to start querying this third novel when I got my agent from the second one I wrote. And then, when I got a two-book contract, I already had both books written and was already working on yet another novel (which eventually became my fourth book, which just released earlier this year).
Don’t obsess over the first thing you’ve written. Learn some lessons, improve your craft, and get going on another story. Because that next one might be the one that gets you an agent or a publishing contract.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note
If you enjoy North Woods settings, you might enjoy my novel Summer People, set in northern Minnesota (1983) rather than the U.P. With similarities to All That We Carried, the Kendall family is still reeling from losing a son/brother in a hunting accident five years prior—with a killer who cannot be found. This pre-published women’s fiction is relayed through fourteen-year-old Libbie’s perspective. If you want writing updates about this and other projects, sign up for my newsletter. www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com
If you like small town and/or Michigan settings, you might enjoy my split-time historical fiction, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, this novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. It highlights The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum. I’m currently gathering a launch team for my historical fiction. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
I invite you to join my monthly newsletter for updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a free gift: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com
Erin Bartels Bio
Erin Bartels is the award-winning author of We Hope for Better Things, The Words between Us, All That We Carried, and The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water. Her short story “This Elegant Ruin” was a finalist in The Saturday Evening Post 2014 Great American Fiction Contest and her poetry has been published by The Lyric. She lives in the capital city of a state that is 40% water, nestled somewhere between angry protesters on the Capitol lawn and couch-burning frat boys at Michigan State University. And yet, she claims it is really quite peaceful. Find her on Instagram @erinbartelswrites, Facebook @ErinBartelsAuthor, and her website.
Join me next time for a visit with Amanda Wen.
Meanwhile, have you read All That We Carried? Or . . . what kind of camping and hiking experiences have you had? Answer in the comments below.