When she was 19, in 1977, Yale undergrad Terri Jentz set off to cross America on a bicycle with her friend Shayna Weiss (not her actual name) as part of America's BikeCentennial. A few days into their trek, the girls turned into Cline Falls State Park near Redmond, Ore., to camp overnight.
Around midnight, the roar of a pickup truck running over their tent and pinning Jentz to the ground awakened them. In the next few minutes, both girls were hacked by the truck's driver with a hatchet and left to die. Jentz crawled to the road to flag down a passing motorist, as Weiss lay unconscious with a severe head wound that nearly blinded her permanently.
Both women survived, and Strange Piece of Paradise: A Return to the American West to Investigate My Attempted Murder And Solve the Riddle of Myself, explores at length the physical and psychological trauma that changed Jentz from a bold adventurer at 19 to a paranoid occupant of a hostile world in her twenties.
"My great voyage across America ended abruptly there. And that was how I reached young adulthood, with a certain knowledge of life at its farthest edges," writes Jentz, in her characteristically introspective style.
Fifteen years after the assault that made national news, Jentz returns to Oregon to try and understand why no one has ever been arrested for the crime. Going over the police files and interviewing townspeople, she quickly realizes that many people agree there is one prime suspect, and that he still lives in the area.
Here, the book turns into an investigational thriller, with Jentz boldly seeking out the former wife and girlfriends of the man she is certain tried to hack the life out of her. Her clearest memory of that night guides her: the image of his muscular torso, dressed in tight jeans and a neatly pressed and tucked cowboy shirt.
The book's middle section is its strongest for its sheer suspense; the reader is left in awe of this woman's gutsiness and determination. We are drawn into the landscape and into the lives of its occupants as Jentz makes them real for herself, bringing us along as privileged insiders.
Jentz has apparent difficulty editing herself, leaving details in the narrative that don't add anything to it but extra pages. And at 542 pages, it could have used some trimming. That said, what initially seems like excessive navel-gazing evolves into keen psychological inquiry that stimulates the reader's interest in Jentz's recovery and her remarkable bravery in the face of her demons, both literal and imagined.
Strange Piece of Paradise isn't an easy read, but it's certainly compelling. While Jentz's meticulousness gets tiresome at times, we ultimately come to understand that in order to unravel her past, she must get it exactly right. Her account of this incredible journey is a rich inquiry into human brutality, suffering, endurance and courage.
Strange Piece of Paradise
By Terri Jentz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27/hardcover