1/19/22

The Survivors: A Tasmanian Mystery

 

THE SURVIVORS (2021)

By Jane Harper

Flatiron Books, 375 pages.

★★★ ½ 

 

 

 

There are people who can’t wait to leave their hometowns and those who can’t imagine living anywhere else. Kieran Elliott is firmly in the first camp. He came of age in the small town of Evelyn Bay, Tasmania, and you really have to love solitude and the ocean to stay. Kieran has many reasons to live in Sydney, Australia with his girlfriend Mia and their three-month-old daughter Audrey, not the least of which are bad memories. When Kieran was 18, he got trapped in a sea cave during a horrible storm. He survived, but his older brother Finn and Toby Gilroy flipped their catamaran and drowned during a rescue attempt.

 

That’s the setup for The Survivors, a new mystery from Jane Harper. Kieran had issues years before the accident. He was the local golden boy before Ash McDonald showed up and was just a hair better than Kiernan at most things. Ash was so easy-going that he never perceived of any sort of rivalry and befriended Kieran. That mostly worked, but Ash never knew that Kiernan and he were both pursuing the foxy Olivia Birch. Twelve years later Kieran returns to Evelyn Bay with his family in tow. He is there to visit his parents Verity and Brian and help his mother close up his boyhood home. Brian has dementia and has become too much for Verity to handle in a pocket-sized seaside village with few social services.

 

Homecomings are often fraught, especially when the past crashes in like pounding surf. Ash, a landscaper, still lives there, as does Sean Gilroy, Toby’s younger brother, and his nephew Liam, who was four when his father died. Neither Brian, a longtime friend of Kieran’s, nor Toby’s widow blame Kieran, but Liam is resentful and Kieran perceives that all three really do think he was responsible for the drownings. To make matters worse, Kieran thinks Verity also blames him and he has felt guilty ever since the tragedy. The rancid cherry on the cake is that Olivia has returned to Evelyn Bay to be closer to her mother and has taken up with Ash.

 

There’s nothing like a small town for big grudges and dark secrets. They begin to surface when Olivia’s summer housemate, art student Bronte Laidler, is murdered outside the cave where Kieran’s troubles began. Evelyn Bay is a summer tourist town and no one wants to imagine that a local could have done such a thing. Local police Sgt. Chris Renn is stumped and Detective Inspector Sue Pendlebury has been sent from Hobart* to investigate.

 

Pendlebury has a fresh take and recognizes that Evelyn Bay seethes with grudges. Ash despises famous author George Barlin, who bought his grandmother’s old cottage and ripped out all of his meticulous gardening; a local waitress likes to play the gossip game; and bar and grill owner Julian Wallis who married Toby’s widow and adopted Liam is the sort who rubs some people the wrong way. Plus, Pendlebury begins to wonder if there is a connection between Bronte’s death and a third that occurred the same night of the big storm. Gabby Birch, Olivia’s 14-year-old look-alike sister, was last seen on a rock jetty as the waves crested. She was presumed drowned, though all that was ever found was her backpack. To make matters mirkier, Mia had been Gabby’s best friend.

 

The Survivors is also the name of a monument to those who died at sea and sits offshore and disappears at high tide. The fact that it lines up with the caves lends a creepy air that Pendlebury ponders. Harper’s mystery turns on several McGuffins that come into play: the backpack; cave wall etchings; a camera; a speeding car that nearly ran over Kieran, Mia, and Audrey; a flashlight; lies and half-truths; and an old timeline that doesn’t work.  

 

The Survivors is a solid mystery, though Harper serves up clues, possibilities, and inuendo in overly large portions that allow readers to discard red herrings and narrow the suspect buffet. However, I did not finger the right person, so credit to Harper for raising enough doubt to keep things interesting. Once again, though, Tom Wolfe was right: you can’t go home again.

 

Rob Weir

 

* Hobart is Tasmania’s capital and half of the island’s half million people live there. Evelyn Bay has a population of around 900.

 

1/17/22

North by Northwest Now Seems Campy

 

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

MGM, Technicolor, 136 minutes, Not-rated

★★★

 

 

 

North by Northwest is considered such a great film that it has been preserved by the National Film Registry. I hadn’t seen it in decades so I decided to see how it holds up. Let’s just say it made more sense in 1959.

 

Hitchcock was definitely being playful in North by Northwest, beginning with the title. Many have pondered its meaning, but Hitchcock insisted that it was just a “fantasy” handle that didn’t mean anything in particular. What’s more obvious is that it is a Cold War film that has been called the “first James Bond film.” If you know nothing else about it, you probably know of its most famous scene in which beleaguered Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is running for his life from a machine gun-blasting crop duster in a barren section of Nebraska that’s flatter than a five-day glass on Coke left on the counter. That clip actually did inspire a scene in a Bond film, a helicopter chase in From Russia with Love (1963).

 

Thornhill is a twice-divorced New York advertising man whose gray suit identifies him as an other-directed interchangeable business cog like those incisively dissected in Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Thornhill’s life is about to become more exciting. Waiters at a New York City bar page “George Kaplan” and several heavies conclude that Thornhill is he. Roger is kidnapped at gunpoint and spirited away to a fancy estate belonging to Lester Townshend. No one wants to hear that he’s not Kaplan; they just want him to die in an “accident.” Thornhill is forced to drink an entire bottle of bourbon, placed behind the wheel of a stolen car, and set loose on a winding cliffside road. Against all odds, Townshend survives, is picked up for DUI, and is bailed out the next morning by his disapproving mother (Jessie Royce Landis).

 

Needless to say, no one is buying his kidnapping story. Roger learns that Townshend is a UN official and that he’s being followed by the same team of baddies who kidnapped him. (One is Martin Landau who later starred in the TV spy series Mission: Impossible.) Thornhill meets Townshend at the UN just in time for one of the thugs to fire a knife into Townshend’s back. Great! Now Thornhill really has to flee as photographers snapped him pulling said knife out the dead man’s back. His only way out is to find Kaplan, whom he has reason to believe is in Chicago, and his best chance of getting there is to sneak aboard the 20th Century Limited. There he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who almost instantly seduces him and agrees to help him. What ensues is a chase across three states, the discovery that Kaplan doesn’t exist, a triple cross, a subplot involving foreign agents and microfilm, and flight down the face of Mount Rushmore.

 

A lot of this seemed much more plausible during the frostiest days of the Cold War. From today's perspective, the most cinematic features of the film are the cinematography of Robert Burks and Bernard Hermann’s dramatic musical score. There are numerous comedic touches in the film that suggest Hitchcock intended a Spy vs. Spy* spoof on Cold War skullduggery. In other words, North by Northwest now seems campy. One of its greatest pleasures these days is finding all the plot holes.

 

There are many and I will point out just one. New York’s Finest can’t find Thornhill in Grand Central Station, even though a ticket agent has told them he’s there, his picture is in every newspaper in the city, and he’s wearing the same suit since he was picked up for DUI. In fact, he wears that MacGuffin through the entire movie. Wouldn’t you think at some point someone would say, “It’s the guy in the gray suit with the unusual accent who looks just like Cary Grant.” You also have to love the irony of another British-born sophisticate, James Mason, playing the main bad guy, and a third, Leo G. Carroll as a part of the U.S. spy team. Like Landau, Carroll parlayed his movie role into a TV spy series; he headed the white-hatted counter-espionage agency in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  

 

You really can entertain yourself mightily by counting enough plot holes to make a fishing net. Hitchcock was usually a master at hiding them but to go back to being playful, he didn’t make much effort to disguise them in North by Northwest. He didn’t even take care to hide himself. (Hitchcock always placed himself in a walk-on somewhere in his films. In this one he’s like Waldo standing alone in a snowy field.) To top it off, the final shot of the movie is Sigmund Freud with a sledgehammer. When you see it, you’ll know what I mean.

 

A classic film? Not anymore, but camp is fun.

 

Rob Weir   

 

* If this reference eludes you, it was an ongoing Mad Magazine cartoon that satirized Cold War espionage.     

1/14/22

Once There Wolves a Compelling Short Novel

 

 

ONCE THERE WERE WOLVES (2021)

By Charlotte McConaghy

Flatiron Books, 255 pages.

★★★★★

 


 

 

If you transported Richard Powers to the mystery genre, you might end up with a novel such as Once There Were Wolves.  Australian-born Charlotte McConaghy has penned a novel that’s so good it’s already won a place among the best I will read in 2022. Among her many virtues is the ability to tell a gripping story compactly yet still spool out relevant details and backstories at a deliberate pace that keeps you turning the pages to confirm or dispute what you have inferred.

 

Initially, Once There Were Wolves seems like the sort of paean to nature that Powers could have written. Its central character Inti Flynn is an eco-warrior. She is in Scotland as part of a four-person team that’s trying to reintroduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands. It would not be too dramatic to call Inti a zealot. The book’s earliest chapters skirt the border of being a treatise on how nature self-heals when ingredients are added back into ecosystems. Inti is not shy in telling nervous locals of all the wonderful things wolves will bring, though all they can imagine is flocks of dead sheep with their throats slashed and entrails spilt.

 

About the time we are ready to think of this novel as a Scottish version of the battle between scientists and New England lobstermen, McConaghy begins to add ingredients of her own to the novel. We learn that Inti’s mute twin Aggie is with her in Scotland and that Aggie’s silent condition has no physical cause. The two have always been closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives and hints are dropped that something happened to Aggie when she was living in Alaska. Prior to that, Aggie was a lively, carefree young woman.

 

As noted, though, don’t expect to know the details of that until McConaghy is ready to reveal them. We do learn that the Flynn sisters come from a broken home, but not of the conventional sort. Their father was a tree hugger in British Columbia who was so over the top that he believed his environmental activism would single-handedly save the world. It was he who taught Inti much about surviving in the wild. By contrast, their mother is a cop in Sydney, Australia, who specializes in misogynistic crimes. It was she who helped Inti cope with an affliction; she has mirror-touch synesthesia–a condition linked to hyper-empathy syndrome–and literally feels the pain of other people and animals. If Aggie burnt her right hand, Inti also experienced it.

 

Things are not exactly going well in the Cairngorms of Scotland. Several locals led by Red McCrae and Stuart Burns have raised the rabble to staunch opposition to the wolves and Burns has shot one he claims strayed onto his land. That’s rubbish, but local police superintendent Duncan Mactavish can’t prove otherwise and has to talk Inti down from her high horse. (Another kind of horse factors into the story!) He and Inti are also attracted to each other, so Duncan faces a tough task. It doesn’t help that Inti is convinced that Stuart has been beating Lainey, his wife, and it gets very complicated when Stuart disappears. Author Nicholas Sparks once called small-town gossip the “toxic waste” of such places, an apt way of thinking of a Highland hamlet smaller than its nearby “large” town of Abernethy (pop. 945).

 

At this juncture, McConaghy begins to reveal more about Inti, Aggie, Duncan, Burns, and several of the other locals. The experience of reading Once There Were Wolves is a bit like watching a painter whose landscape we only see late in the process, as the artist lays on each of the colors one at a time. You can be excused if you conclude that humans are more vicious than wolves.

 

McConaghy keeps us guessing to the end and even if you do manage to unravel a mystery or two, their details will probably spin differently than you imagined. The final pages are a tad too abrupt in their sunny optimism given the darkness of what comes before. Yet, the ending is also probably just as you would have wished it. Again, one can only applaud Charlotte McConaghy’s concision. She tells a compelling tale in 255 pages when too many writers take twice as long to say half as much.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

 

 

1/12/22

The Narrow Margin a Wonderful Overlooked Noir Classic

 

 

THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)

Directed by Richard Fleischer

RKO Pictures, 71 minutes, not-rated.

★★★★ ½

 


 

 

Film noir had peaked in popularity by the time The Narrow Margin appeared in 1952. Very few film fans now recognize names such as Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, or Jacqueline White and even in their day they were considered second-tier actors. Too bad on all fronts, as The Narrow Margin ranks among the best of forgotten film noir classics.

 

As is generally the case, the narrative arc seems simple, though you can rest assured that there are plenty of twists. LAPD Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (McGraw) and his partner Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) have been sent to Chicago to provide bodyguard duty for Mrs. Frankie Neal (Windsor), the widow of a mobster who has turned state’s evidence. She has a payoff list found among her dead husband’s effects whose contents would cripple a major crime syndicate. As a cab drops off Brown and Forbes in front of the safe house, we hear a much-quoted line that’s vintage noir. When Brown ponders what Mrs. Neal is like, Forbes predicts, “She’s the sixty-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.”

 

Things go wrong from the start. Forbes is murdered as the trio descends a dark stairwell and, though Brown wounds him, the assassin flees. It’s 1952, so the journey from Chicago back to California is by train, not an airplane. Brown faces the daunting task of single-handedly keeping Neal safe. His heart isn’t into it, as his dead partner left behind a wife and three kids, and Neal is a major piece of disagreeable work. She’s acid-tongued, demanding, and has the charm of an enraged hornet. Brown has a double compartment and he shoves Neal into one of them and tells her to lock the door and keep quiet. As if that will happen.

 

Brown cases the cars, identifies a known hoodlum, and fingers several others he suspects are hoods, including the nosy and rotund Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey). Brown also can’t help noticing an attractive blond named Ann Sinclair (White) who is traveling with her young son Tommy and a nanny. Focus Walter! It takes several days to make such a trip in 1952, and are were several stops along the way, any one of which raises the odds that more gun thugs will come aboard. He’s even openly approached by mobster Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), who’d rather settle matters amicably; he offers Brown a $30,000 bribe to reveal where he has stashed Neal. It’s tempting when your client is contemptible.

 

Will Neal or Brown make it to LA? The Narrow Margin is a taut 71 minutes, most of which takes place inside a train. Credit goes to the direction of Richard Fleischer for keeping tension levels so high that the train’s cramped compartments, berths, and corridors never make the film seem claustrophobic. To be sure, there are MacGuffins and red herrings throughout Earl Felton’s screenplay. In retrospect, there are two major logic errors in the film but as Alfred Hitchcock observed, if directors do their jobs well, viewers won’t notice. Fleischer did his job very well.

 

Rob Weir

 

1/10/22

Now on View at the Hood Art Museum

 

 

Hood Art Museum

Hanover, New Hampshire

On View Now

 

The ultimate zero-sum-game is the attempt to rank comparative oppressions. Oppression is oppression.  I say this because my next comment might otherwise seem insensitive. In today’s (Dis)United States, Latinos are now the largest minority group. Other high-profile movements include Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Stop AAPI Hate, pro-choice activists, and transgender rights groups. Conspicuous by its relative absence is the minority group that is at or near the bottom of0 virtually every negative social indicator: Native Americans. About the only thing that hits the news is when some sports team decides to drop a stereotypical mascot, something that should have been done five decades ago.

 

A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum. The college used to have teams called the Indians, but now it has the remarkable Jami Powell (Osage) as its Curator of Indigenous Art. If you think it doesn’t matter if such a person is part of a museum’s staff, I invite you to drive to Hanover, New Hampshire, and then make such a statement.

 

The Hood is about install a piece from Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith titled Trade Canoe: Forty Days and Forty Nights. I was lucky enough to arrive just before the holiday break. Trade Canoe wasn’t yet on view, but most of the supporting exhibit was and I caught a preview. Here are just a few works of art that reminded me anew of how important it is to change the proverbial frame. 

 


 

 

Take this powerful work from Yatika Starr Fields (Osage/Creek/Cherokee) titled White Buffalo Calf Women March. You will notice that the three women are literally cut off at the knees. How appropriate for those marching to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline that would bisect Lakota land. Alas, as of now the go ahead has been given for this needless oil pipeline. Is the white flag a sign of surrender? Maybe not. Notice it is held by what appears to be a pair of ghostly hands. Is it really that the sky and the flag and reflected in water? If so, why would a paved highway run into that water? Another way of looking at it is that the surrender flag has been cast down. Are the hands the ghosts of ancestors? 

 


 

 

Subhankar Banerjee was born in India and is not Native American, but her photograph Known and Unknown Tracks is another reminder of what happens when we place oil ahead of indigenous rights or environmentalism. The wide expanse you see is the area near Teshepuk Lake in north-central Alaska. As you look at it, do you need me to remind you of the fragility of the tundra? Don’t fall for the malarkey that oil companies erase their eco-footprints.

 


 

 

Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) punctuates this in Oil Boom, a photographic “dreamscape” sandwich. Is the figure in the sepia water being born or drowning? 

 


 

 

Arthur Amiotte (Lakota) offers a more conventional collage of layered photos and print clippings in Saint Agnes Manderson, S. D. Pine Ridge Rez. Manderson is a town in South Dakota and the composition is a take on the complicated issue of assimilation. Spend some time with this. Embedded within is a history lesson involving missionaries, schools that sought to obliterate Lakota culture, Natives who assimilated, those who partially did so, and traditionalists. It often confuses whites when they encounter Natives with Anglo-sounding names like Arthur who ID as Native. Now you know why. 

 


 

 

In 2018, T C Cannon (Kiowa) was the subject of a fabulous retrospective at the Peabody Essex Museum. At the Hood we see his 1977 acrylic work Taos Winter Night. According to the curators, the spots might echo participation in a Sun Dance ritual. It can also be enjoyed on its own for its strong compositional elements. 

 


 

 

Roxane Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo)–see what I mean about names–works in ceramics. Her Sitting on My Mother’s Back is figurative on many levels: woman as nurturer, shelter, defiant figure, Mother Earth….  I couldn’t stop looking at this one. 

 


 

 

Swentzell collaborated with Rose Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo) on the 21-foot-long Timeline Necklace. It’s a mixed media combination of ceramics, wood, wire, leather, and rope that also looks at women and motherhood. It also contains subtle reminders of single women, poverty, and resilience.

 


 

 

Leave it the dynamic Faith Ringgold to connect the color dots. She is African American and better known as a quilter, but her photolithograph United States of Attica, was made in 1972. It was inspired by the infamous 1971 prison riot that left 43 people dead and 91 wounded. It reminds us that H. Rap Brown (now Jamil Al-Amin) was right to assert that “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” This closeup is part of a larger map in the Pan-African colors of red and green and shows the toll in the Southeast.

 

I have loved Inuit art since the days when I taught high school Canadian studies. The Hood show Inuit Art/Inuit Quajimajatuqangit samples Inuit works on paper and stone carving.

 

I invite you to draw your own meanings from the following pieces, which I have labeled by artist (if known).  

 

Helen Kalvak Nightmare  

 

Sarah Joe Qinujua Ready to Leave for the Hunt   
 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

1/7/22

Under the Whispering Door Sweet, but Derivative

 

UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR (2021)

By T J Klune

Tom Doherty Associates Book, 389 pages

★★★

 


 

 

The House in the Cerulean Sea, TJ Klune’s previous novel, was one of my favorite novels of 2021. Under the Whispering Door also has its delights, though aspects of it suggest that he might have cranked it out a bit too hastily. In many ways, it’s the same book as Cerulean Sea, but with different characters and a different setting.

 

Gone are the mythological characters of Cerulean Sea, but they give way to a new cast of speculative individuals. The book’s subtitle hints at what is in store: Death is Only Their Beginning. Think a blend of Cerulean Sea, A Christmas Carol, a splash of Greek mythology, and a gay novel. It opens upon Scrooge-like attorney Wallace Price, who is powerful, ruthless, vain, and heartless. He has just fired his secretary of ten years for making the first mistake she has made in her time with the firm. Then he drops dead. In Dickens-like fashion, he observes what his colleagues think of him as he is lowered into the ground. The word that appears on most lips is “asshole.”

 

Luckily for Wallace there’s no rush to judgment after death. He instead finds himself in quirky house akin to that of Cerulean Sea. Note its name: Charon’s Crossing Tea, Charon being the ferryman who transports souls to Hades in Greek myth. Wallace meets Hugo who runs the tea house, but the African American Hugo is more British in his mannerisms than Charon. Wallace is furious to learn he is dead, insists it’s a mistake, and demands that he be returned to life immediately. Hugo calmly chooses a tea blend for Wallace and bids him to drink. No questions will be answered until Wallace gets a grip on himself. Besides, who wouldn’t like a nice cuppa before shuffling off this mortal coil?

 

Wallace discovers that the tea house is the portal to the afterlife that the dead enter via a panel in the ceiling on the 4th floor when they are ready. He will meet an unusual group that includes Hugo’s grandson Nelson, who looks older than Hugo because Nelson lived to a ripe old age. There is also Mei, the Reaper who brings Wallace to the tea house and is still new to her job. There’s also wordless Nancy who lost a child; Alan, a murder victim; and Desdemona, who comes to the tea house to hold seances.

 

One of the tea house’s many quirks is that it’s a hangout for both the dead and the living. Hugo is among the latter, though his dog Apollo is a ghost like Wallace and the living patrons can’t see or hear ghosts. Wallace wonders if this means that Hugo is God, but is assured that he’s only the ferryman. There are vague references to The Manager, who must not get involved in any passing to the next realm if everyone knows what’s good for them. Wallace is literally hooked by a long line to Hugo. He remains intent on fleeing back to the land of living, until he encounters Cameron, who tried that and became a hollowed-out zombie destined to wander in mindless limbo for all eternity.

 

Wallace masters sitting down and how to eat some of Hugo’s delicious baked goods, but he has a lot to learn and not much time to absorb it. In another nod to A Christmas Carol, Wallace is forced to consider why he was an asshole and he wishes to redeem himself. He will also fall in love with Hugo. Talk about a relationship with no future!

 

Under the Whispering Door has been called a “gay love story” and a “fairy tale for adults.” Both labels are apt. There is a sweetness to Klune’s writing and doses of humor that make him a joyful read. Still, it’s very much a derivative work and its deux ex machina resolution is way too pat. Whereas Cerulean Sea felt wildly inventive and offbeat, this one induced feelings  akin to when I watch a sequel of a great movie that’s not bad, but not a patch on the original. I hope that Klune takes his time with his next novel and takes us somewhere new rather than simply changing his vest and returning us to the same party.

 

Rob Weir 

1/5/22

Connecticut River Flood of 1936

CONNECTICUT RIVER VALLEY FLOOD OF 1936 (2021)

By Joshua Stanley

The History Press, 175 pages.

★★★

 


 

 

The United States is blessed with numerous powerful and useful river systems. The flip side is that they tend to flood from time to time and a big river leaves devastation in its wake.

 

The 410-mile Connecticut is the longest in the Northeast, nearly 100 miles longer than the Hudson. Its floods don’t usually grab national attention like those along the Mississippi, but the Connecticut and its tributaries periodically wreak havoc. Three big ones in 1927, 1936, and 1938 were particularly fierce. Vermont was clobbered so badly in 1927 that the New York Times histrionically declared that it had been “destroyed.”

 

The granddaddy of Connecticut overflows occurred in 1936. It is the subject of a new book by Josh Shanley, whose background is in emergency management, fire rescue, and several other germane professions. Most studies of the 1936 floods have been local ones. Stanley’s contribution is to look at the entirety of the Connecticut River system. March 1936 involved a literal perfect storm; heavy rains fell upon thick ice formed during a colder-than-normal winter, leaving the water with few places to go except over the banks. Milder weather brought a second whammy, large sheets of dislodged ice. Instant frozen dams appeared—some higher than 30 feet-–that sped the course of the water, while other chunks split apart and slammed into bridges. Some were knocked off their moorings and several were washed away entirely, as were riverside rail tracks, roads, farm buildings, and homes. By Shanley’s reckoning, an adjusted $9 billion worth of property damage ensued and more than 100 people lost their lives.

 

Shanley opens his book with a look at how historical developments played a part in riverine disasters. Humans have been altering the Connecticut River in major ways since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. New England’s swift-flowing waters provided a natural power supply for factories, machines, and lighting. By the early 20th century, dams (often earthen) dotted the Connecticut River and feeder streams. Most were overtopped in 1936 and a half dozen were destroyed.

 

Pleasant Street Northampton

 

Shanley takes us on a north-to-south journey and assesses the damage from Comerford Station on the Monroe, New Hampshire/Barnet, Vermont, line to Hartford, Connecticut. Some of the worst damage occurred on Connecticut tributary rivers such as the Ammonoosuc, the Farmington, the Green, the Mill, the Millers, and the Wells. In all, 35 towns and cities suffered crippling storm damage. By way of illustration, Northampton, Massachusetts, saw a trolley bridge and a 1200’ iron span across the Connecticut wash away. Waters from the Mill River flooded the downtown, threatened a gasworks, and made Pleasant Street navigable only by rowboat. Overflow from the Connecticut inundated the Three County Fairground.

 

Shanley takes a chronicler’s approach rather than dramatizing the tales. His matter-of-fact account is loaded with statistics whose net effect is to drive home the severity of the cataclysm. He also accumulated quite a trove of photographs—both aerial and ground level—that graphically illustrates the tragedy.

 

Two things jump off the pages that make all of this more than a peek into the past. First, the responses both during and after the floods were heroic and extensive. Shanley tells of power plant workers working in rising water as they battled to pile sandbags that kept waters at bay. More impressive still, 250,000 New Deal Works Progress Administration workers turned their attention to repairs and flood control projects aimed at preventing future disasters. In Northampton, they had not yet completed their tasks before the town was buffeted by another flood in 1938, but among their efforts was the diversion of the Mill River away from the downtown along the very course it runs today. Those who think that the private sector does things better than the federal government should muse upon this. On an even more poignant level, consider today’s infrastructure plan paralysis. When the hue-and-cry arises that analogous projects are too expensive, remember that we are seeking to rebuild things that date to the 1930s, including flood control projects. Moreover, those major undertakings occurred in the middle of the Great Depression!  (Think maybe our priorities are bankrupt, not the Treasury?)

 

As Vermonters who endured the effects of Hurricane Irene (2011) can attest, Mother Nature often delivers reminders that humans aren’t as safe as they think. With very little editorial comment, Shanley ends his book by posing the question of whether we might be heading for a future repeat of 1938. If that sounds implausible, ask residents of New Orleans if Hurricane Katrina (2005) would have been less destructive had we taken care of surrounding wetlands.

 

Rob Weir

 

1/3/22

Crossroads: Too Long, but Provocative

By Jonathan Franzen

CROSSROADS (2021)

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 592 pages.

★★★★

 


 

When I was young, I was involved in a Christian youth group that was the rival of a much more conservative group. Our liberalism was a point of pride, as was our equally affected hipness. The local leader dropped phrases like “Jesus and the boys (disciples)” and read from The Good News Bible, whose text now seems painfully embarrassing and antiquated. As is often the case, a lot of what passed for “cool” was shallow and transitory.

 

 Crossroads, the newest novel from Jonathan Franzen, took me back to those days. Once you learn that the title references a similar Christian youth group, you are halfway toward an understanding of its multi-layered meaning. It is set in the imagined First Reformed Church in the equally fictional New Prospect neighborhood of Chicago. We meet the Rev. Russ Hildebrandt, his wife Marion, and their four children: Clem (19), Becky (18), Perry (15), and Judson (10). Russ grew up Mennonite, but left that faith for various reasons, chief among them Marion and his interest in progressive causes such as civil rights and the plight of Native Americans. His devotion to do-good causes won Russ many admirers, and each summer he leads work camps to the Arizona Navajo reservation where a youthful epiphany occurred.  

 

 If you pay attention to American culture, you will have observed that the popularity of causes changes over time. That’s Russ’ dilemma. Crossroads takes place in the winter of 1971 and the spring of 1972. Among middle-class white kids impacted by Vietnam, changes in style, and new musical tastes, Russ’ coolness has faded like the allure of his ever-present sheepskin coat. Young people are flocking to First Reformed, but to Crossroads, which is led by a new groovy pastor, Rick Ambrose. Russ pours out his fall from iconic status thusly,

 

 "What galls me about so-called youth culture now is that people seem to think it came out of nowhere. The kids today think they invented radical politics, invented premarital sex, invented civil rights, and women’s rights. Most of them have never even heard of Eugene Debs, John Dewey, Margaret Sanger, Richard Wright. When I was in Birmingham in 1963, a lot of the protestors were my age or older. The only real difference now is their fashions–different music, different hair. And that’s just superficial."

 

 Russ knows that envy is wrong, but he’s stung by Rick’s popularity and justifies his jealousy by telling  
 himself that Rick is theologically weak and more of a hippie than a clergyman. He might be right about    t that. If only these matters were all that troubled Russ, things might have been simpler. It’s much harder,  t though, to explain away his attraction to Frances Cottrell, a widow with whom he contrives ways to spend time. 
 

The Crossroads group takes on aspects that blend cult-like behavior, pop psychology, and worldliness; and the novel takes a dark turn. What begins as a look at a youth group veers into many other things, including the backstories of troubled individuals. This is one of those novels in which the lines between sincerity and fraudulence are blurred–not just for the Hildebrandts, but for pretty much everyone around them as well. Flashbacks to the past make us wonder if all those problems are bred in the bone. Readers also come to realize that religion is merely the fulcrum that lifts the veil from other things: the thin line between righteousness and sin, faith versus mere ritual, clashing cultural values, purity and lust, addiction of all sorts, secrets well and poorly kept, coolness versus goodness, and how easy it is to drift if one is never fully present in the first place. 

 

 Many novelists build toward revelations and resolutions. Not Franzen. When you come to a metaphorical crossroads and paths diverge, which one does one take? Writers who make that choice clear and easy do a disservice to the human condition; it’s often hard to know the right path until one is far enough along to discern the consequences looming in the distance. If you need things tied together with a neat bow, look elsewhere. Not even Native American characters come across with much nobility. I will also warn that Crossroads is not a quick read. Frankly, the book did not need to be as long as it is, but it is nonetheless a provocative book.

 

 Is Franzen a realist or a cynic? That’s your call, though my vote goes for option A. Either way, though, Crossroads is a reminder that belief in anything should be rooted in things more substantive than fashion or bandwagon behavior. If it goes no deeper than a desire to be placed on a pedestal of coolness, it will not survive when the cultural winds shift.

 

Rob Weir