Cascade, by Massachusetts author Maryanne O'Hara, grew out of three story ideas. O'Hara didn't really know how the stories might connect but sensed they should. The result is a historical novel that focuses on Desdamona Hart, or Dez. She has come home to Cascade, Mass., in 1935 after art school in Boston and travel in Europe, determined to help her dying, bankrupt father save his Shakespearean playhouse. She marries Asa Spaulding, a pharmacist, who takes them in.
Her father thickens the plot by leaving the theater to Asa. Dez wants to paint and to keep her promises, so for a time she tries to 'have it all' as both a dutiful wife and an artist. She takes portrait commissions to resurrect the theater as her father asked. Anyone who has ever juggled responsibilities while trying to pursue work they love will understand her struggle.
Dez befriends Jacob, an artist and peddler, and their friendship sustains her as she tries to fit back into small town life. Meanwhile Asa is pressuring her to start a family and disapproves of another man spending time with his wife.
And Cascade is under persistent threat from the water authority, which plans to flood the town for a reservoir.
Her postcard series about Cascade's possible destruction becomes a regular feature in The American Sunday Standard, whose editor invites her to illustrate for the magazine in New York. She and Jacob become the subject of town gossip when a man working on the reservoir plans is found dead on Asa's land with Jacob's truck nearby. Dez risks everything to clear his name, and Jacob leaves for New York and a job in a New Deal art program.
In the aftermath of this episode, Dez has to choose - stay with Asa, pursue Jacob, or simply follow her dream of a career in art, regardless of the men in her life. The burden of the playhouse, which she must persuade Asa to move before the town is flooded, weighs heavily. I found myself having nasty thoughts about her father, who appears to have cared more about his theater than his only child.
O'Hara touches on issues familiar to contemporary readers, such as the conflicts surrounding public works projects and eminent domain, or the painful gossip and bigotry that sometimes plague small towns. She tells a very interesting story about an unsettling time in history as well, during the Depression and the run-up to World War II. And she tells a timeless one too, about a woman working to balance her promises and her passion. I enjoyed each aspect of this atmospheric novel.
Short fiction and a poem / play
I also read three short-story collections and a poem/play: Understories by Tim Horvath, Rise by L. Annette Binder, The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Association Justice and other Stories by Jay Wexler, and Park Songs by David Budbill.
Horvath is a professor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. The pieces in Understories not only share a philosophical, whimsical, darkly humorous aesthetic, but also seem to come from a world that resembles ours but is riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these evocative stories left me feeling slightly off-kilter.
The Conversations, which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse, and The Understory, about a German botany professor who escapes Hitler's rise to power, settles in New Hampshire, and loses many of the trees on his land in the 1938 hurricane, are two of my favorites. Horvath doesn't just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds and souls of his characters.
Binder, a part-time New Hampshire resident, fills Rise with fantastical details: a giant woman who is half-angel and still growing in her 50s, a boy who sees shadow-like halos over the heads of people who will die soon, a child who only speaks dead languages. At the same time, her stories are about everyday realities, such as people dealing with illnesses or struggling to get along. Rise is a book about transcending life's emotional and psychological turbulence.
Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, has written a zany collection of stories that had me laughing out loud. In one, Henry Clay advises a teen and her mother on college. Another is written as a script for a sitcom pilot about a prison's death row.
Wexler hits on a number of brilliant ways to skewer government and politics, such as a story about a man filing a 'horn incident report,' and another in which Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearing is conducted by the 1977 Kansas City Royals instead of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice is offbeat, absurdist and thought provoking.
Budbill is a Vermont poet and playwright whose work reflects his father's advice, 'Stick up for the little guy, bud.' Despite its genre-bending, Park Songs: a Poem/Play is a very accessible book about people in a city park on a single day. In addition to R.C. Irwin's 'absurdist and nostalgic' photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. Budbill's note to readers suggests that any parts of the book could be staged, that a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that 'Let's Talk' could be its own one-act play. That section features very funny, touching banter between Fred, who is lonely, and Judy, who is reading in the park because she wants to be alone. Budbill captures the essence of human communication - the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations - in one scene on a park bench.
With fall around the corner you can curl up on a cool evening with any of these books and enjoy fictional worlds grounded in very realistic human hopes and struggles.