Under the Whispering Door Sweet, but Derivative



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 


Connecticut River Flood of 1936


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



Crossroads: Too Long, but Provocative

By Jonathan Franzen


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