Maryanne O'Hara's Cascade a Lively (though flawed) Novel

CASCADE (2012)
Maryanne O’Hara
Viking/Penguin, ISBN 978-0670026029
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An early 20th century song posed the question, “How ya’ gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen gay Paree?” And how can you keep them there if the farm might be doomed to lie 150 feet under water? These questions are at the center of Maryanne O’Hara’s debut novel Cascade.

Enfield, MA--the novel's inspiration--before it was flooded.
Cascade, Massachusetts is modeled loosely on Enfield, the largest of five towns and villages dismantled and plowed under in 1937 to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies water for Boston, sixty-five miles distant. (The other four are Dana, Greenwich, Prescott, and Millington, and the stream called “Cascade” is actually the Swift River.) These hamlets were dots on the map that collectively held around 3,000 people–inconsequential places to thirsty Bostonians, but home to generations of rural Bay Staters and the final resting place for 7,500 expired residents. O’Hara opens her book in 1935, when it was fait accompli that some part of the region would be flooded, but it was an open question as to which towns would disappear.

O’Hara’s fictional Cascade is the largest town on the river and one with an unusual history. The protagonist of the tale is Desdemona Hart, whose unusual first name evokes Shakespeare’s “Othello.” “Dez,” as he is called locally, is the surviving offspring of a colorful father, a well-known Shakespearean actor who built and operates an ornate summer playhouse that has for decades brought major talent and minor renown to Enfield. But, remember, it’s 1935–the depth of the Depression. Hart has done everything he can to keep the place running, including selling treasured memorabilia, and rare manuscripts. Even before he dies and leaves Dez buried under debt, the only way end can be met is for her to marry the family’s benefactor, local pharmacist Asa Spaulding. Her father mysteriously willed the playhouse to Asa. He does, however, leave Dez a small casket, a key, and instructions not to open the box until the playhouse reopens.

Enfield Town Hall--perhaps a model for the playhouse.

It’s a toss up which is more imperiled, the playhouse or Dez’s marriage. She is a serious painter who has studied in Paris, worked in Boston, and dreams of living in New York, and Asa can think of nothing more grand than living out his days in Enfield. Asa desires children right away; Dez is pretty sure she never wants them. He is conventional and she has her father’s bohemian heart. Try as she will, Dez sees Asa as a decent man, but as boring as drying paint. It doesn’t help matters when a former art school friend visits Cascade and pronounces it awful, even though she is a struggling New York City artist who hopes to secure a meal ticket with the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. Nor does it help when Dez meets the only other person who shares her aesthetics–a traveling Jewish salesman named Jacob Solomon. In rural Massachusetts during the 1930s, Jews were no more popular than in Germany as the fascists rose to power. There’s also a mysterious death of a water board official that threatens to implicate Dez and Jacob. Scandal, innuendo, accusations, and longing lurk around Dez, even as she launches a postcard and journalism enterprise that finds a New York publisher and brings national attention to Cascade’s peril. 

The novel proceeds to play out these threads. It raises issues of gender expectations in the 1930s, forbidden relationships, and the pull between desire and duty. Will Dez settle down, or take the next train to New York? Is she sincere about trying to save Cascade, or is she deftly undermining it? Is it even okay for a woman to be unconventional? Who can be trusted? What will happen to the playhouse, and what’s in the locked box?

This is one of those books that one reads quickly, even though it’s not fine literature. O’Hara often sacrifices believability in favor of lucky coincidences, and the tone–particularly passages of intimacy–is evocative of that of pulp romances. Some of the characters exude a plucky independent streak that seems more 21st century than 1935. O’Hara doesn’t have a great ear for dialogue, nor is she a great stylist. What she does do with great aplomb is develop vivid background and set up thorny conundrums, so lets give O’Hara credit for storyboarding a very lively tale.

In case you’re wondering, Enfield was never an arts Mecca; O’Hara imagined that. But, as the Bard observed, all’s well that ends well. --Rob Weir

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