I read a lot of, uh, interesting books as a kid. Having jumped straight from Dr. Seuss to "grown up" books, without a stop in what would be called YA today I ended up reading things that might have been a little too mature for me at the time, but I still enjoyed them immensely. One of these books, which was a huge favorite for me for at least a year when I was 12, was Unicorn Mountain. I'm writing about this book now before I reread it, then I'll review it again and see how well my decades' old recollection matches the book and if it holds up to how good I thought it was.
The appeal for me was obvious, it had unicorns! But the book is about far more than that. Every winter unicorns roam Libby Quarrel's ranch. It's not something she and her one ranch-hand Sam ever talk about really, it's just something that happens, like that the fact that after midnight her black-and-white TV plays color broadcasts from what appears to be the land of the dead. This year, however, something's wrong. The unicorns are sick and dying in both the land of the living and (according to the broadcasts) the land of the dead of some mysterious plague, and Sam's ex-wife is back from the dead. In the midst of all of this Libby's ex-husband asks a her a favor, his cousin is dying of AIDS and no one else in the family (not even him) will take Bo in. Meanwhile Sam's estranged daughter starts a spiritual journey toward becoming a medicine-woman.
Thinking back on it there were definitely some things that were completely over my head. For one thing this was my first exposure to the mere idea of homosexuality, and it didn't help that Bo was a bit hard to like at the time, after all he had abandoned his partner when he first became sick. It would take reading Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar series for the idea to really click with me, and even longer for me to realize my mushy feelings toward women meant that I was bi. Bo was actually quite a well-rounded character and it would be interesting to see how I feel about him these days if I ever reread the book. Looking back on it I have to imagine that he, a gay man in the 80s watching his friends and lovers die left and right, must have been terrified, and people who are terrified often do cowardly things. He isn't the only one in the story. Sam had a difficult relationship with his wife and daughter and ended up abandoning them, his only contact being to show up at his daughter's high school graduation. At least until his ex-wife (dead of a suicide) returns to kick his ass into gear.
Libby, for her part, wasn't sure at first what to do with Bo, although it was obvious to her that he couldn't be allowed to live (or die) alone. This is all swept away when the problem of the unicorns comes to a head and their bodies start piling up on the ranch. Libby and Sam round up what living unicorns they can find and bring in a vet to try to figure out what's going on. It turns out that the disease the unicorns are dying from is related to a horse disease--except the vector for the disease only lives on the Other Side, in the land of the dead. The unicorns are infected in their other home, migrate through a series of old goldmines onto Libby's ranch, and then either recover or die. The ones that recover then return to the land of the dead only to be reinfected. In order to save the unicorns from extinction two things are needed, a person to carry this information to the land of the dead, and the unicorns that are still in the land of the living need to be cut off from their migration routes and trapped in a world without their disease-vector.
There are, I'm discovering, large chunks of the book that I can't really recall. For example Sam's daughter's name--she's one of the main characters but fuck me if I can remember it. Her entire subplot as she journeyed toward becoming a medicine woman was fairly important but I can't recall how it fit into the rest of the story. I do remember that she went through some sort of spiritual quest involving dancing for days without drinking water to produce visions. It sounded amazing and dangerous. It also helped Bo to heal spiritually as he faced his immanent death from AIDS. Sam's wife--another name I can't remember--seemed to be trying to communicate the unicorns' migration route and what to do about it, as well as making him face what he did to their family, but I can't remember much of the details (other than the fact that since she'd blown her brains out with a rifle she came back without much of a head).
In the end Sam and Libby hook up, and Sam reconnects with his daughter. Bo dies, and the living characters watch him on late-night color TV as he dances with his partner. Presumably he tells the people in the land of the dead what, exactly, is going on with the unicorns and that they need to be trapped in the land of the living in order to save them from extinction.