‘The Best Part Of Us’ celebrates our ties to the Earth

Thursday, August 27, 2020 - 5:28pm

NOSELL

The Watermark Project

Sally Cole-Misch dedicates her debut novel, “The Best Part Of Us,” to “every living thing.” An environmental communicator by profession, Cole-Misch refers to more than just humans or other animals. Her dedication encapsulates the entire natural world. Clusters of birch trees, steep rocky cliffs, vast lakes and bays — Cole-Misch recognizes that everything around us is living, pulsing, with energies unique to its spirit. 

“The Best Part Of Us” is a captivating celebration of nature that pushes us to consider our connections to the Earth. Cole-Misch tells her story through the eyes of Beth Llyndee, an adolescent girl who returns to her family’s island in the fictional Lake Wigwakobi every summer. Beth’s summers on her island are the most treasured part of her childhood, a place where she can hike on trails and swim in waters she knows by heart. Lake Wigwakobi is a part of Beth, much more a home than her house in Ann Arbor. When Beth’s tight bond with nature suddenly shatters, she’s forced to choose between her family and her cherished island refuge. 

Cole-Misch’s strength lies in her formation of setting, writing about Lake Wigwakobi in an evocative and compelling way that immediately draws readers to the island. Upon first viewing of the lake, Beth “leaned over the bow to watch the water change from aquamarine to indigo as the lake deepened, and to brilliant white when the bow broke its stillness and collected it into waves.” Similar descriptions accompany everything from picking blueberries on the island’s peak to watching the sky dance with northern lights on a summer night. “As Beth absorbs her view—the water, people, trees, rocks, and sky—her back lifts, her arms fall to her side, and her legs relax to cross at her ankles,” Cole Misch writes. Her words paint the Earth as our ultimate refuge, a source of strength to draw from and live intimately within.

“The Best Part Of Us” is a lighthearted read that shines in its simplicity. The novel’s plot isn’t exceptionally noteworthy or adventurous — the spotlight is instead on the natural world. “...some of us need to step outside what man creates and does to one another to find peace and clarity in the woods, water, and sky,” Cole-Misch writes. Each character is multilayered and built beautifully to show how variable human relationships to the environment can be. Beth thinks clearly when sitting on the forest floor surrounded by pine needles, while her mother thinks only of the island’s dangerous cliffs posing a threat to her family’s safety. The Llyndee family is equally shaped by familial relationships and ties to the environment, and this fresh approach to character-building makes the novel a charming read for nature and fiction lovers.

Beth’s perspective lends an endearing atmosphere of exploration and excitement, similar to a young-adult novel. As Beth grows in character with each passing summer, our investment in the island deepens. Readers fish with Beth in the morning, sail with her midday and join her in bonfires at night. “She was giddy, like someone had tickled her insides with a loon’s feather, and her body was as light and fine. Her heart beat wildly in her chest, excited to experience nature’s magic. Beth turned and lifted her face to the wind,” Cole-Misch writes, inviting readers back into the magical world of childhood. We see the beauty in a wave breaking against the shore, a family of loons tumbling through the water, a gull’s call piercing through the early morning — all through a child’s eyes.

Yet, amid this light tone, Cole-Misch tactfully embeds strong foci, notably indigenous sacred land and our conceptions of home. Cole-Misch’s efforts to integrate these topics are admirable and necessary within the world of nature-fiction. Much of this genre excludes indigenous peoples, for whom the land is an original home, and focuses instead on white settler interactions with the earth. This novel encapsulates these racial divides through the eyes of an ideal protagonist — a young girl whose views of humanity are pure and untainted, just like her ties to the family’s island. “Every year she felt enveloped into the island without questions, the chipmunks, squirrels and birds considering her only briefly before accepting her as part of their world,” Cole-Misch writes of Beth. The island is home to Beth, and she can’t wrap her head around injustice and land ownership issues revolving around the place she loves. But readers understand the gravity of these issues and the hurt they inflict on humans and the Earth. 

Ultimately, “The Best Part Of Us” is a powerful ode to our relationships with the Earth. “What we value, we act to protect,” Cole-Misch writes in her acknowledgements. When we respect the Earth and its systems of balance, our actions are shaped by a responsibility to save it. Cole-Misch’s words urge us to honor our home instead of taking it for granted. “The Best Part Of Us” is a joyous read to nurture appreciation for our planet.