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By Abi Maxwell
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Growing up in the Midwest (in Medina Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland), I always held an exaggerated view of life on the East Coast. Which means I considered all of New England to be a a wide-lawned suburb of New York City, full of liberal-mided folks who descended from rich landowners that came over on the Mayflower. I could go on describing this dream New England, but you probably get the picture. When I went off to college at a small liberal arts school in the Southwest, the student body was largely populated by the offspring of just this kind of East Coaster. Trustafarians, I called them. And so, my ideas about the East Coast stuck. In my imagination, New Hampshire and Connecticut are one and the same, and so are Boston, D.C., New York.
But of course I know better than that now. A few years ago I rode my bicycle from Bar Harbor, Maine down part of the coast. On that trip, I spent several days biking through New Hampshire, and I can tell you its a strange kind of place. Let's put it this way: The state might be peopled by the descendants of pilgrims, but more of them are living in trailers than you might think. More sleeveless t-shirts, too. More tattered American flags and more Gadsen flags (the one featuring the coiled rattlesnake and the words "Don't Tread on Me") than you might expect to find in a state populated by "East Coast Liberal Elites." New Hampshire's motto is Live Free or Die, and a good number of the state's residents take this idea to heart. What sticks out for me after visiting the state isn't its overwhelming beauty, but rather the shocking poverty and sense of rugged independence that permeates everything there. Its spirit is a lot closer to rural Montana or Iowa than New York City. I've visited every state in America, most of them by bicycle, and nowhere else was what I found so different from what I had expected.
In other words, New Hampshire must be a strange place to grow up. Abi Maxwell, a New Hampshire native, sets her debut novel Lake People in the state. It's certainly a rich enough place to locate a setting-driven novel.
Lake People begins with the image of our heroine Alice Thorton as a newborn baby, floating abandoned "in an old canoe on the big lake." It's the kind of mysterious opening that might strain believability, but it also tells us what kind of story this one will be--that is, the kind where newborn babies might be placed in canoes in lakes, and one in which this is the kind of thing that people might actually do. We also understand that this novel will be concerned--at least in part--with telling us who exactly this baby is and how she got into a canoe.
Alas, in the very next paragraph, Ms. Maxwell takes a step back. The canoe, she tells us, "wasn't floating freely. It was tied up in the boathouse where I would be found, just east of Kettleborough pier." The decision to dial back on the opening image is a puzzling one--sure, putting a child in peril in the opening scene is a borderline lazy way of building suspense, but reducing the child's peril by introducing new information drains all the energy out of the scene.
It isn't long after that first scene that Ms. Maxwell has answered all the questions we had about baby Alice. She is the daughter of Jennifer Hill and Karl Wickholm, two Kettleborough teenagers. Just before Alice is found in the lake, Karl is found dead. Jennifer runs away from home and is never seen again. It's framed in the novel as a kind of a scandalous star-crossed love affair, because the Hills and the Wickholms come from opposite sides of the tracks in Kettleborough. Essentially, the Hills are those "Don't Tread on Me," sleeveless t-shirt wearing, beat-up-trailer living, "Live Free or Die," New Hampshire-ites that I saw so many of on my bike trip. The Wickholms are the kind of New Englanders who send their offspring to tiny liberal arts colleges in the Southwest. Certainly there is an interesting story to be told about these class divisions, but when Ms. Maxwell gets bogged down in these details the story grinds to a halt.
The reason the story stalls is that it's too confusing. The proud (read: rich) Wickholms live a big house with a water view. The only thing blocking their view is a stand of pine trees owned by a woman who is a friend of the Hills, whom we are clearly meant to believe belongs to their socioeconomic class (i.e., poor). Huh? Not sure how it is in the lakes region of New Hampshire, but in every other waterfront community I have visited the people with the money live on the shore. Also, Ms. Maxwell tells us that Alice's great-great grandparents were immigrants who were so penniless that they settled on an uninhabited island and built their own cabin. Then Alice's grandmother dies, and her mother is raised by a lesbian aunt (although Ms. Maxwell somewhat uncomfortably refers to her as a gay woman--"I had failed to understand that she herself was a gay woman"). The aunt is not rich. So the method by which the Wickholms rose in one generation to such a high economic status is unclear. Alice's grandmother Sofie is married to a gentle Swede named Otto who owns a store in town, from which he makes and sells his own ice cream. So it turns out that the ivory tower the Wickholms look down at the Hills from is actually made of vanilla.
Unfortunately, the confusion doesn't end there. As a novel, the driving force of Lake People is the question of Alice's origins. The problem is that those origins (that she is the product of the aforementioned star-crossed love affair) are clear to the reader very early on in the story. The rest of the novel is taken up by Alice trying to figure it out for herself. There are no surprises along the way. The problem with setting up a plot in which the reader knows everything that Alice is trying to find out is obvious: The longer it takes Alice to piece it all together, the stupider we think she is. By the time Alice moves away to the hill country (where she lives in poverty with a man who doesn't love her, then marries him in a courthouse, right after he tells her again that he doesn't love her, then is shocked and depressed that he doesn't love her), we're beginning to think she might not be the sharpest tool in the shed.
In the hill country, Alice happens to meet a woman named Martha Hill, who I believe would be her second or third cousin. When Martha tells Alice that she knows a secret about her, Alice doesn't seem too interested in knowing what it is ("Alice shrugged," Ms. Maxwell writes). Instead, Alice seems more interested in conveying how poor and backward Martha is compared to her. You see, Martha belongs to a lower class than Alice, the Hills vs. the Wickholms all over again, and Ms. Maxwell won't let us forget it. Martha lives in a ramshackle house "built so sloppily it looked like a house of playing cards that would surely blow over in the wind." But again I was confused by this. For one thing, Alice at that point in the story doesn't know she is a Wickholm--in fact, she's been raised by an alcoholic single step-father--so why is she so judgmental of Martha? In the hills a hundred miles away from the lake, they still live right down the street from one another. Their husbands work at the same factory. Alice's husband beats her. Alice has a broken down car. Why does she feel her status is so much higher than Martha's?
Later, Alice reads the following passage in Martha's journal: "God forgive me for writing it down. Us Hills and them Wickholms have a secret child from my dissapeared cousin Jennifer Hill and their dead son....Alice, the secret is you!" And Alice still doesn't get it. She's got to go back to Kettleborough, go to the library, spend time on the microfiche, etc. It takes her almost another hundred pages to finally connect the dots.
I think Ms. Maxwell senses that her plotting isn't cutting it, and so she attempts to add gravitas to her novel in other ways. Perhaps ten or twenty people drown in the lake during the course of the book. Many of them are Alice's ancestors. Alice is raped by an older man. Alice has a random sexual encounter. Alice witnesses an accidental death that she is forced to cover up. Baby Alice is a passenger in a van that falls off a cliff. There's also the aforementioned single alcoholic father, and the husband who physically and emotionally abuses her. And that's only Alice. Countless other tragedies befall the other characters in the book. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a little blood and guts, but there are so many tragedies here, all with no plot to pull us through or a single character we really care about, that the tragedies themselves are like a drumbeat behind the story. Toward the end of the book, when Ms. Maxwell's well has apparently run dry, Alice repeatedly contemplates suicide. I just don't have the patience for that kind of thing.
Ms. Maxwell also tries to compensate for her plotting with elegant sentence construction, but the tone seemed too self conscious and effortful to me. "My mother was named Ida and she followed a call that led her out upon the frozen lake and by that lake she was swallowed. Those tall rocks that stand in our lake today rose up immediately after she fell within."
On its own the writing is nice, but in conjunction with all these other shortcomings it makes me suspicious. And that's the bottom line--nothing about this little book was too offensive, but the little flaws added up so relentlessly that they became overwhelming. Part of the reason for this might have been that the beginning of the book demands a close read, because each of the chapters are told from a different point of view but lack the chapter headings a book like this would commonly have (e.g. "Sophie," "Signe," "Alice"), and it's difficult to decipher who's speaking.
I wouldn't have judged this book nearly so harshly had it been presented as a book of stories. To present it that way instead of as a novel would have negated the need for a plot connecting the stories, just as it would have negated the need for common themes and chapter headings. If those things hadn't tripped me up, then I might not have found the language and the catalogue of tragedies so grating.
All of that being said, it's undeniable that Abi Maxwell is a talented young writer, who has found a wonderful setting for her fiction. A few chapters of this book function very well as self contained stories, particularly "Lake People" and "The Old Factory." Lake People is worth the read as a short story collection, but won't be rewarding for those who try to make sense of it as a novel.
Out of 10: 7 as a novel, 8.5 as a story collection