"PURE LAND: A True Story of Three Lives, Three Cultures and the Search for Heaven on Earth," by Annette McGivney, Aquarius Press, 354 pages
The mountains and canyons of the American West are like wise, old elders, watching over us mere humans as we strive, struggle and, sometimes, soar. They've witnessed incredible advancement and unbelievable horror, such as the May 2006 murder of Tomomi Hanamure.
Hanamure was killed doing what she loved: exploring the outdoors. Since attending an English-as-a-second-language course in Mississippi after high school, Hanamure, a Japanese citizen, had traveled back to the United States multiple times, logging thousands of miles on the roads between South Dakota's Black Hills, California's Muir Beach and Utah's national parks. She'd been hiking toward Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon when Randy Wescogame, a troubled teenager and Havasupai tribal member, attacked her with a knife.
Hanamure's death and Wescogame's crime posed a seemingly endless series of questions about violence, human nature and spiritual unrest. Why had Hanamure restlessly wandered alone through the West? What drove Wescogame's descent into darkness? How do we move on without the answers we seek?
Annette McGivney, a journalist, author and nature-lover, couldn't move on. After writing about Hanamure's death for Backpacker magazine in 2007, she remained obsessed with the case, interviewing Wescogame, traveling to Japan to meet Hanamure's family and slowly working through why the murder affected her so deeply.
In "Pure Land," McGivney offers the fruits of her labor, intertwining the details of Hanamure's murder with an overview of her efforts to come to terms with a turbulent childhood. The book dabbles in Native American history, psychology, Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture. The unifying theme is nature's healing power.
I struggled at times to keep up with McGivney as she moved from topic to topic, preferring the chapters in which she settled into a specific narrative, exploring Wescogame's upbringing or Hanamure's long visit to Monument Valley. "Pure Land" is more memoir than true crime, although it does highlight McGivney's impressive investigative skills.
In the end, I was grateful for the book's lessons on trauma and grace, and for the reminder of how fortunate I am to see mountains out my window.