In Falling from Grace, novelist and biologist Ann Eriksson takes on the themes of size and strength. Three feet and 10 inches tall, entomologist Faye Pearson relishes her career of researching canopy insects, a task that entails climbing the vast trees of Vancouver Island's old-growth forests. Faye's deeply felt connection to the habitat she studies anchors Falling from Grace in a quiet reverence for the natural world, informed by Eriksson's own knowledge of ecology.
As we're taken into Faye's world, it becomes clear that not all of her relationships are as comfortable as her affinity with ancient trees. Unrequited desire for her climbing partner and research assistant Paul is further complicated by their encounter with a group of environmental protesters deep in the forest.
Reluctantly, the pair are drawn into the environmentalists' tree-sit against loggers, just as Paul is drawn to the charming instability of the protester Mary, who "doesn't believe in money" and happily brings her young children, Rainbow and Cedar, to live with her in the makeshift protest camp. As tensions mount between Paul, Faye and Mary, Faye's mother Grace makes an unexpected appearance at the protest camp. "A woman of great compassion and little tact," Grace disrupts the emotional habitat Faye has cultivated as an adult, bringing back childhood humiliations and her father's embarrassment about her dwarfism.
As the protest camp settles in for a confrontation, the discovery of a rare seabird nesting in the condemned trees gives Faye and Paul hope that they might be able to save the forest for their research, but making their case to the logging boss is complicated by the jealousies that have begun to ferment among the protesters.
After a mysterious tragedy in the forest, and the arrest of the protesters, hippie-airhead Mary abandons her daughter to Grace and Faye, and Faye is left to come to terms with the consequences of the protest. Her forest solitude is suddenly ruptured by complicated family dynamics, frustrated desires and reminders that the world was not built for people her size.
Throughout its tightly knotted plot developments, Falling from Grace is held together by the assured and unsentimental first-person voice of Faye, in whom Eriksson has created a character large enough to match her evocative conjuring of the Pacific Northwest landscape.
Funny, warm and bitter in equal parts, her voice perfectly conveys her love of forests and her burning infuriation at people's ignorance about her dwarfism. When tragedy strikes both the old-growth forest and the people Faye loves most, Faye is given a chance to learn the pleasures of connecting with other people, and the character slowly softens to love more than her trees.
Eriksson's writing has a rare precision. She doesn't spare us the technicalities of entomological research and the details of scientific academia, but makes the reader comfortable with the complexity of the subject matter. Her juxtaposition of Faye's dwarfism and the vast size of the ancient trees she studies could easily have been clunky and overplayed, but Eriksson's close attention to detail, both in characters and ecology, makes the theme plausible and gripping.
One of her specialties in Falling from Grace is placing human weaknesses under the microscope: posturing environmentalist protesters and a spineless logging boss are equally unsparingly sketched. But the main accomplishment of Falling from Grace is Faye's voice, and Faye's love of climbing trees, in which Eriksson's own fascination with ecology can't help but shine through.