Radical Empathy via Free Indirect Speech: Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Mountains Without Number”
By Anne Elliott •
One of the noble aims of fiction is the fostering of empathy across difference, including difference of beliefs. Most difficult for me is finding empathy for those with unpalatable beliefs. Softening my gaze puts my own moral code into question; however, paying benevolent attention to other people is a healing practice and might even be necessary for the survival of our species. One writer who takes on this challenge successfully is Luis Alberto Urrea, whose stories perform ventriloquism, transcending gender, age, ethnicity, and class with easy authority. One of the techniques he uses to great effect is free indirect style, exemplified well in his short story “Mountains Without Number,” from his collection The Water Museum.
For those uninitiated, free indirect style is a mode of narration where omniscience is taken to an extreme, penetrating the characters’ brains where necessary for the story. In his book The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story, Christopher Castellani defines free indirect speech as “that mode in which the narrator continually fuses with various characters one at a time, inhabiting their consciousnesses, and, in showing us the world through their eyes, disappears into them.” David Jauss sheds further light on the technique in his essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction,” explaining that free indirect speech/style “allows the narrator to be simultaneously outside and inside a character…because he is giving us the character’s thoughts in the character’s language, not his own.” The two key aspects of free indirect style are (1) penetrating the character’s consciousness, and (2) adopting the character’s diction, making the technique uniquely suited to building a reader’s empathy for multiple characters in a situation of conflict.
In “Mountains Without Number,” Urrea uses the language of several of his characters as he moves from one consciousness to the next, and this mosaic comes together to create a larger storyteller’s point of view, one that might be both empathetic and political, providing a moral perspective that may not match the characters’ views. The story takes place in New Junction, a small, dying Idaho town in Shoshone country. The town is in the shadow of a butte covered with numbers painted by high school classes over the years, and the number 77 is significant to Frankie, the story’s central character, who runs the town’s only restaurant. Through the points of view of Frankie and several other characters, we slowly learn that the kids who painted the 77 fell to their deaths, and that Frankie was romantically involved with both of them: one a free-spirited poet, the other a macho motorhead.
When the story begins, Frankie is looking at herself in her high school yearbook. We see the world through her eyes—the language is plain, the sentences short and often omitting their subjects: “She had famous lips. She looks at herself in her drill team uniform. Runs her finger down her skinny leg. Wonders where that girl went.” Frankie is a product of this place. She drives a Ford truck with 120,000 miles on it. She is conscious of the ongoing drought. But there is self-effacement in the omission of subject in these sentences. And politically, she seems to be an in-betweener, reducing her footprint, yet laughing at her liberal tendencies: “She keeps her geraniums and little apple tree out front alive with her dirty dishwater. Saves money, though her neighbor says that makes her a Democrat. Being eco-logical and all that happy crappy. They laugh about it over the fence some mornings.” Happy crappy is a term her thoughts seem to borrow from someone else, enjoying though not necessarily agreeing. As the story progresses, Frankie does more listening than talking, and the townspeople rely on her for not only her blueberry muffins, but also for her nonjudgmental ear. She thinks of them as her “clients,” as if she were their therapist.
Inside the diner, we experience the perspective of multiple characters, most notably Ralph and The Professor, who seem to be opposites on the political spectrum. This brief exchange shows us both perspectives in quick succession:
Ralph studies the Big Beaner Platter—eggs, chorizo, beans, and tortillas—as if it were an engine needing a tune-up. He isn’t sure if Mex food is right for the valley. But he’s up for something new.
Professor: “Ralph, what you eating?”
Ralph: “Illegal alien grub.”
The Professor turns to three sheepherders skulking in the corner booth, hunched and dark.
“Sorry,” he says.
“Basque,” says one of them—and a look that tells him to mind his own business. “Legal.” The men go back to their eggs.
The first half of this passage uses Ralph’s language. His go-to metaphor is that of a motorhead: the food is “an engine needing a tune-up.” It’s doubtful that the menu item is actually called “Big Beaner Platter”—this is Ralph’s nickname. “Mex food” too appears to be Ralph’s terminology, right up there with “illegal alien grub,” which Ralph, seemingly proud of his intolerant stance, actually says aloud.
The Professor’s embarrassment is apparent in the second half of the passage, which uses “higher” diction: “skulking,” “hunched and dark.” We would imagine that Ralph would not see or describe the corner table as “sheepherders,” but as something more colorful and openly racist. The Professor’s language is precise; his racism is clumsy and accidental in the way of well-meaning, educated liberals, his attempt at kindness rebuffed by the strangers in the corner. The omniscient voice briefly enters The Professor’s consciousness as he assumes the workers are “illegal” and apologizes for Ralph’s behavior, sharing in this moment of embarrassment and accidental microaggression.
Urrea pits these two against each other as a microcosm of the town’s central dichotomy. Poets and thespians were squared off against athletes and motorheads in the 1977 manifestation of that dichotomy. And forty years later, the battle is still intellectuals versus townies, the sparring sometimes friendly, sometimes not, the issues more political. In this town, in this era, “Obama’s still a communist.” (According to Ralph, that is.) Biases are reflected in the dictions Urrea employs.
But Urrea invokes another consciousness immune to this conflict, one that predates the current human occupants by millennia. It is a spiritual consciousness, and it might be the butte itself. Its language is pushed to the lyric register, using plenty of natural imagery:
The cliffs don’t count years—years are seconds to them. Flecks of gypsum pushed off the edge by the hot wind. They are the original inhabitants of this valley. And they weren’t always cliffs. They were entire mountains once, until the inevitable carving wind and scouring dust and convulsive earthquakes and cracking ice trimmed them, thinned them, made their famous face appear to oversee the scurrying of those below.
The cliffs are wise, but also subject to the elements. They are vulnerable to change. The language is careful in its parallelism and visceral in its adjectives. The diction is elevated. The sentences skew bigger, like the consciousness behind them. But interestingly, the cliffs have a “famous face,” like a person. One thinks of neutral, plainspoken Frankie and her “famous lips.” Perhaps she and the butte are kin, each silent but wise in a singular way.
This butte knows stuff—literally. Twice, Urrea personifies the butte to boast its braininess. The first time is after the diner’s patrons quibble over who among them has been around longest, referencing the numbers painted on the cliff, which start with 1923. “The butte knew, if they didn’t, that the top of the 23 was the height where great sharks and whales once swam.” This butte wins the who-was-here-first fight. And later, the butte remembers the number-painter from 1941, a guy nicknamed Big Double:
The butte knows that Big Double Wally saw eagles fly in a mating dance as he struggled up. That he almost fell. That the entire valley floor, once drained of ocean, became another kind of sea—red and orange and screaming hot as the lava rolled across the flats. Ferns, palms, ancient shaggy pines bursting into flame and vanishing under the languid waves of melted stone.
This butte has seen everything, from the eruption of lava in the valley below to the struggling 1941 climber. This butte has absolute authority. And it doesn’t talk like the residents of New Junction. Its language is bigger, more descriptive and lyrical.
While the surface backstory is about the rivalry between the two boys who died in 1977—and the heartbroken woman they left behind—the bigger backstory is about the life of a place. By giving the butte long, lyrical flourishes and ultimate authority, Urrea is signaling something specific about New Junction, and other junctions on other roads around the world. New Junction’s citizens are in conflict with each other, while the ancient rock watches. Urrea’s implied message: We are just specks, and so are our beliefs.
In his discussion of free indirect style, Castellani points to the allocation of stage time on the page as “a form of respect as much as good storytelling: if our narrator and guide, the one we’re trusting to organize the story for us, finds [a specific character] so compelling, then maybe we should, too.” So, who gets the respect in Urrea’s story? His narrator clearly finds the butte’s point of view compelling, and this perspective does do a lot of work. By its careful and colorful language, by its allocation of stage time, the butte commands respect.
But let’s consider Urrea’s closing imagery. The “clients” have gathered outside the diner. They wait for Frankie to show up to provide food and a nonjudgmental ear. They don’t yet realize she is not coming. The butte chimes in, describing, of all things, a long-ago fog:
Once, when the valley was full of water, dragonflies as big as ravens rattled through ferns and tall spikes of grasses and cattails. Cool fog blanketed the face of the butte—the softest thing the valley had ever known. Sometimes, the last people of New Junction dream of it: fog. It comes to them like a memory they never had. It is the dream of the mountains.
This fog is equalizing and permeating, and it may be a stand-in for a unifying ambiguity and softness that the citizens can’t quite fathom. The Shoshone had a word for it, but the current people don’t, and therefore may not ever be capable of seeing eye to eye.
But instead of the butte’s perspective, Urrea leaves us with the image of the two rival diner regulars, using the undecorated language his townspeople, not the butte, prefer: “The Professor looks up. ‘She’ll be here,’ he says. ‘Right? Right?’ Ralph is already walking away.” The last sentence, surprisingly, belongs to bigoted Ralph. It is melancholy and small and plain. It is respectful. I take this narrative choice as a challenge to pay empathetic attention to the “Ralphs” all around us.
ANNE ELLIOTT is the author of The Artstars: Stories (Blue Light Books / Indiana University Press, 2019) and The Beginning of the End of the Beginning (Ploughshares Solos, 2014). Her short stories can be found in Story, A Public Space, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Hobart, Bellevue Literary Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Fugue, and elsewhere. Elliott is a veteran of the New York spoken word circuit, with stage credits including the Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center, and PS122. Her fiction has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Story Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Table 4 Writers Foundation, Tomales Bay Workshop, The Normal School, Longleaf Writers Conference, and the Bridport Prize. She holds an MFA in visual art from the University of California San Diego, and an MFA in fiction writing from Warren Wilson College. She lives in Maine with her husband and many pets. Find Anne on Twitter and Instagram @bigfatpress.