Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

At 3:00 am the line between fact and fiction blurs. Before falling asleep, I had been reading Peace Like A River, a novel by Leif Enger set in the Badlands of North Dakota. The scene was about waking in a trailer that has run out of propane, where breath comes out as smoke and blankets freeze. Outside the wind blows and snow paints the landscape white. I awoke cold. No power. No heat. The sky glowed a murky pink of distant lights.

The trees were white down to the bark, not one branch was spared. Snow was spray-painted onto model trees for a train set or a holiday shop display. Only this winter, my winter, was real and vicious. The wind whipped, pulling one tree’s hair until her whole head snapped off.

An hundred year old white pine’s crown fell, barely missing our tree house. Our little forest had survived the last ice storm only to be wrecked by wet snow and wind. Two trees down; others hold onto lame branches by bark skin only. Maimed and battered, the survivors stand.

Peace Like a River is set in a winter landscape where snow falls by the foot and drifts to eaves. It swallows a man whole. The scale is even greater to a child. The narrator is eleven-year-old Reuben Land, but this is not a children’s book.

Peace Like a River is an adult exploration of family myths, good versus evil and the limits of faith. It is also a Western with an outlaw older brother on a sturdy horse. Our heroine, Swede, is a precocious nine-year-old girl who writes cowboy stories in rhyming verse (ugh!)

The children believe in their older brother and in miracles that will lead them to him. The miracle worker is their father, an ordinary man, a janitor who has lost both his wife and his job. He not only speaks but argues with God. This is a myth told by a child narrator, who worships his father. Reuben is not necessarily a reliable narrator:

You know this is true, and if you don’t it is I the witness who am to blame.

Although it is shelved in adult literary fiction, Peace Like a River reads like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter crossed with C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These are poor folks in a bleak winter landscape, but there is also magic rich in Biblical allegory.

Violence and crime makes this a story appropriate only for mature teens. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my 14-year-old son, but it would give his younger sister nightmares. There were a few grizzly passages I had to skim and wished I’d skipped.

There were other passages that I went back to read again and again. Enger’s prose is simple but evocative:

I remember it as October days are always remembered, cloudless, maple-flavored, the air gold and so clean it quivers.

With the same sparse prose Enger renders complex feelings:

I had a feeling the adults didn’t know we were in the room – a feeling we were getting away with something, and a sadness that it was nothing to be prized.

Enger’s verse can just be plain fun:

Hope is like yeast, you know, rising under warmth.

Here’s another gem:

Anyone can hear her voice was worn to the contours of apology.

There are perfect sentences and perfect passages:

I dropped off for real and dreamed a river of horses flowing along between banks, manes rippling, backs streaming sun. I woke inside a strange calm recognizable as defeat. Light entered the house pink and orange. I straggled outside, leaned against the house and squinted at the backlit hills. The light was expiring; already it was like looking into tea-colored water. I didn’t, in fact, see Davy. But somewhere on the side of the darkening hill a horse lifted its voice to neigh. The sound had the clear distance of history.

Now can you see how someone who has little interest in Westerns and is skeptical of miracles could fall in love with this novel? The true miracle was in the written word.

Enger is a master storyteller. His writing is beautiful and lyrical, and his characters recognizably human if larger than life. I loved that the narrator was a boy plagued by asthma and torn by his loyalties and desires. Reuben and his precocious sister felt more like adult memories of childhood than like actual children. They are storybook characters in a campfire tale.

I cozied up by the woodstove, reading by daylight, and suspended disbelief. I was disappointed to reach the end under the glare of electric lights.

Thank you, Tessa and Bee, for this wonderful book recommendation!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sand Art

Winter is a sand artist. When I was growing up in NYC during the 1970’s, sand art was the rage. You’d pour layers of dyed sand into a glass jar and poke it with a toothpick to create waves of color in sunset ripples.

In Maine, snow and salt bleach the dunes.
 Arctic air dyes the sky deep blue.

The wind and tide sculpt ripples across Popham Beach.

Sand changes color from dry to wet to frozen.

The scale is a matter of perception.

The topography ebbing.

Tides drag stones across a canvas to paint trees. 
 Etchings drown.

Submerged, the beach is a mirror.

Uncovered, it is surreal.

The landscape is my museum.

I’m a curator, a witness, a muse.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Popham Beach in Winter

My manuscript revisions were feeling as fresh as old snow. The mercury had crept into the double digits; the sun was shining, and the wind was still. The sea would rinse the snow from the sand. Clear winter light paints a canvas for intrepid walkers.

My dog bounded off in pure delight. For weeks Stella has been following my ski tracks, her ball lost in deep snow.

Crazy dog, how could you swim in such frigid water?

There were still fields of snow above the high tide mark.

The Morse River carved a serpentine path, rising and falling with the tide.

Winter storms and erosion have uprooted trees.

Pine cones suffered icy battle wounds bandaged in seaweed. Drips hung suspended in the bitter air. Winter froze time.

I passed boarded-up beach houses. How different they looked in summer.

Wouldn’t it be bliss to have even this little house on the beach?

If I’m dreaming, why not this island home? It is connected to land only at low tide.

Or perhaps I could write in a lighthouse. I would never have to leave home for inspiration.

Icebergs lined the shores of the Kennebec River as it flowed down from Bath to the ocean. I thought about my next book set on those banks. Every step on frozen sand was a note on paper, but I can’t start writing a new book until I finish drafting the old one.

As the sun sank low, I was ready to head home. The waves had washed the gritty residue off the pages waiting on my desk. Another day of revision swept by. Finally, I’m writing new chapters again. The tide has turned.

Blog Watch: Trying to beat winter blues? Check out these blogs: Troutbirder in Minnesota laughs them away while Each Little World in Wisconsin escapes into The Secret Garden.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Water Dogs by Lewis Robinson

Harpswell Sound by Sarah Laurence (watercolor)

Water Dogs
by Lewis Robinson is set in my part of coastal Maine. If Meadow Island were real, it might be in Harpswell. Visitors drive up from Portland and down from Brunswick, crossing a bridge to the island. The Meadow Island kids, called “water dogs,” go to Brunswick High.

Lewis Robinson lives in Portland and teaches writing at USM. He’s a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was John Irving’s assistant for two years. You can see the touch of the master in his work, but his voice is original. Robinson wrote a fabulous collection of short stories, Officer Friendly, which I reviewed two years ago. I had been eagerly awaiting his debut novel in January. I was not disappointed.

Robinson writes exquisitely about Maine and its inhabitants. This is not “Vacationland” (as it says on the license plate) but a cold, wintry place of bleak beauty. So many novels set in Maine are about summer people “from away.” Robinson’s character are locals. These are “real men” who shoot birdhouses for target practice while drinking heavily. They puke, defecate and swear, but they also try to do the best by their loved ones, often failing miserably. You might get exasperated with these characters, but you can’t help loving them.

When we first meet the twenty-something protagonist, Bennie is woken by baby raccoons nesting in the walls of his home. He frees them by hacking a hole in the wall and then catches the mother in a have-a-heart trap. The hole in the wall remains un-repaired, but the raccoons are released into a ravine. Bennie lives with his taciturn brother in a dilapidated seaside mansion called “the Manse.” The main décor would be rows of empty beer bottles. After losing their father as teenagers, these young men are drifting.

The high point of the week is playing paintball, a war game where teams fire paint pellets from their guns in the woods. The Littlefield bothers’ arch rivals are the urchin fishermen. Playing in a snow storm, Bennie falls into a quarry and one of the urchin fishermen goes missing. Bennie’s brother becomes a suspect. Now playing detective, Bennie hobbles on crutches in search of the lost player.

Unfortunately, the central plot sometimes limps as much as Bennie. We don’t get to know anything about the missing man until the final chapters, and we never learn enough to care. It’s an odd omission because the other characters are so well developed. I think the story would have worked better if the missing person had been Bennie’s twin sister, visiting from NYC.

It doesn’t matter. The writing is so good and the characters so real, that you won’t mind that the mystery plot doesn’t totally work. What do work are the relationships. Bennie starts out insecure and lost, but in looking for the missing man, he instead finds himself. Perhaps that was really what he was searching for all along. To uncover Bennie, Robinson digs deep into family relationships with so much emotional honesty that you’ll cry with the guys into a pint of Harpoon Ale.

Robinson can be wickedly funny, skewering my hometown:

The Maine he knew was getting overhauled, burdened by interlopers and nostalgia-addled white-collar suburbs in the middle of the woods – Cumberland, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Brunswick, old towns with brand-new health stores and woodstove dealerships. Many of the cars he passed had vanity license plates – EX-BRIT, KAYAKR, SOCERDAD, DRMOM….

Robinson notes crass ugliness, but he also finds poetic beauty in the ordinary:

The ice crystals on the window beside Bennie were curved white ferns, and through them he caught glimpses of the tundra; everything in the world was dead or sleeping.

What I loved best of all was the winter island setting:

There were thin wisps of sea smoke on the water and a layer of mist just above the dark blue expanse, but otherwise the view was as sharp as it usually was in winter – no islands on the horizon.

Snow and the sea surround the characters and create the mood, enhancing the tension. The best chapter was a story unto itself in which Bennie’s father, “Coach,” dives naked into the frigid ocean, trying to save their water-logged retriever.

The flashbacks are actually better than the main story, but that works in the narrative. Bennie has to deal with his past before he can step into his future and walk again.

There was a real sense of coming home, reading Robinson’s words. Not only does he inhabit my world, he shares my vision to a certain extent.

My novel S.A.D. seems to be the next chapter in these characters’ lives, once they’ve reached middle age and sent their own kids to Brunswick High. My coastal Maine is not so bleak and isolated, but it’s volatile. Brunswick is more than a gentrified college town, it’s a naval town of diverse characters with inter-connected lives. Robinson’s young men live on an island all to themselves. I’d like to invite them in from the cold.

Blog watch: As you can see, I’ve been reading more than ever on these cold days. I noticed that some of you bloggers are doing so as well. Alyson@New England Living disconnected for a week to read books. Rose@Prairie Rose’s Garden has abandoned her frozen garden to read and to review three novels. A Cuban in London reviewed a French novel set in Tel-Aviv. For more book reviews, visit Barrie Summy's Book Review Club today. Who says bloggers aren’t readers?

Reminder: my talk on blogging and using the internet to market art is on Monday Feb 9th. Details at the bottom of last week’s post.