As I do with all first time reads I love, I went looking for more of Abbey's work, and then discovered Desert Solitaire, which remains one of my favorite books. Today, while Abbey is considered an important figure in the environmental movement as well as a prominent person in the canon of nature writing, he is also controversial, especially in regards to his view on immigration and Native Americans. Furthermore, his final resting place has remained a mystery -- when he died in 1989, a group of his friends buried him in the desert. There was no ceremony. While a stone does mark Abbey's final resting place, few people know where the grave site is, and those who do know, aren't telling.
Because I find Edward Abbey such an intriguing character, I was excited to find Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave by Sean Prentiss. However, in many ways, this title is a bit misleading, as Prentiss isn't really just looking for Abbey's grave -- he is looking to find out more about the elusive figure of Abbey himself and indeed, find answers about his own life.
Prentiss starts his journey in Home, Pennsylvania, looking for the graves of Abbey's family. It's a discouraging start: the village itself is nearly deserted and those he does stop to talk to (including a teenager who works at the local ice cream shop and a local pastor) have never heard of Edward Abbey. Eventually, however, he does find the lonely graveyard. With a friend, Prentiss studies the site: "We stand in front of the Abbey family grave, both knowing this piece of granite means nothing to the larger world. Abbey isn't buried here, and he probably only stood here once, to put his mother Mildred to rest back in November 1988."
Still, this lonely cemetery marks a sound start to Prentiss's journey which takes him across the United States through various places where Abbey once lived. During this journey, Prentiss interviews a few of Abbey's friends, including Doug Peacock, the man who has been described as the real life model for the character of George Washington Hayduke in what is probably considered Abbey's most famous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. It's on this journey that Prentiss starts to take stock of his own life: "What matters is that I listened to Abbey's friends. It's about seeing the desert through their eyes. Questioning Abbey through his writings, probing further into why he felt the way he did toward women, minorities, and immigration. Revitalizing my political self through his books and his friends' words. Questioning my life--how and where to find a place called home."
Part memoir, part travelogue, part biography, Finding Abbey is a book that not only explores the life of an elusive literary figure, but also catalogs a young writer's own self discovery. Prentiss discovers that it doesn't really matter whether or not he finds Abbey's grave -- in the end, he finds out what he really wants to know.
For more information about Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, see the author's website.