So You Like a Mystery? National Parks Set the Scene for Nevada Barr's Books

Author Nevada Barr ( spins a good yarn. A former National Park Service ranger, she writes what she knows -- the settings for her mysteries are national parks, and her detective, Anna Pigeon, is a ranger. Anna's backstory is that she joined the Park Service after her actor husband was killed in New York City, and she finds safety in solitude. But occasionally someone breaks into her aloneness, such as the time she enjoyed a brief liaison with an FBI agent during a murder investigation at Lake Superior. Anna loves the wild country, and her work often takes her into strange situations. It's fascinating to see the parks through Anna's eyes, in the series' inaugural volume, Track of the Cat (Berkley, 1993), as she patrols the backcountry of Guadalupe Mountains National Park on horseback -- is the killer a mountain lion, as the tracks imply, or something more sinister? -- or when she strives to uncover the cause of inexplicable deaths amid the ruins at Mesa Verde National Park in Ill Wind (Berkley, 1995). The "accident" that befalls a spelunker in the depths of Carlsbad Caverns in Blind Descent (Berkley, 1998) takes the reader into subterranean territory, and the tense situation that develops among the small group of isolated firefighters during the aftermath of a forest fire at Lassen Volcanic National Park in Firestorm (Berkley, 1996) is riveting. In High Country (Berkley, 2004), set in Yosemite National Park, Anna goes undercover to find four missing seasonal workers. Ms. Barr makes Anna the new District Ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park in Hard Truth (Putnam, 2005), where a 6-week-old mystery seems to be winding down . . . until the disembodied voices start and small slayings turn into something bigger. In Borderline (Putnam, 2009), Anna and her new husband, Paul, head down the Rio Grande on a raft in Big Bend, but the relaxing jaunt takes on nightmare proportions when their raft gets lost in rapids. Taking the reader back to 1995, when Anna Pigeon was just starting out in the Park Service, the 17th book in the series, The Rope (Putnam, 2012), takes place in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Fresh from New York City, Anna signs on as a seasonal employee and takes a workman's holiday on her day off to go hiking. When she doesn't return and her cabin is stripped of her belongings, everyone assumes she's simply moved on. How Anna Pigeon not only survives being trapped at the bottom of a dry well with no clothes or supplies, but also pieces together the why and who of her predicament, is the story her fans have been awaiting. Don't miss it.

America's New Celebrities: the National Parks

Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan's six-part, 12-hour 2009 documentary series, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, told the dramatic story of the origin of the National Park system. Starting with "The Scripture of Nature," it focused on the early appreciation (in the 1850s) of the areas that became Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, followed by "The Last Refuge," depicting the ongoing battle between the preservation of the parks, starting in the 1890s, and industrialization and commercialization of the lands. "The Empire of Grandeur" profiled the formation of the National Park Service in 1916, spearheaded by wealthy, charismatic businessman Stephen Mather, who returned again and again to nature to restore his own health. "Going Home" featured people following in the footsteps of Mather in the 1920s and '30s to create more parks and protect the natural wonders all over the country, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s, purchase of land to donate to the U.S. to expand Grand Teton National Park. "Great Nature" told the story of how the parks survived and changed in the Depression, with the creation of the WPA, and how President Franklin Roosevelt resisted pressure to use their natural resources during World War II. Set in the postwar years through about 1980, "The Morning of Creation" told how the parks have developed the balancing act between being cherished and visited by millions each year, and protecting the environments from being overrun and permanently altered. You can watch scenes from the series at or purchase the DVDs, companion book, and soundtrack CD.

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