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North Country novel

Last modified: 5/29/2011 12:00:00 AM
Some artists and writers who follow in a parent's footsteps tread lightly. They can do nothing to avoid the comparisons critics will inevitably make, but they at least try to cut a distinct path.

Ann Joslin Williams instead resurrected the milieu of her father, the late Thomas Williams, as the setting for Down from Cascom Mountain. The homage doesn't end there. Thomas Williams probably shared many traits with the father of the main character in Cascom Mountain. And like her father, Ann Joslin Williams teaches English at the University of New Hampshire.

But while one of her father's novels, The Hair of Harold Roux, won the National Book Award in 1975, this book turns out to be, unfortunately, more of a beach read than a literary gem.

The story is set in and around a fictitious New Hampshire mountain, which tourists at a summer resort and the teenagers who herd and serve them share with the sparse year-round population. Death and sex are the staples of the plot - sudden, unlikely and premature death and sex in several flavors: coming-of-age, recreational, empathetic and occasionally even loving.

The event that sets the story in motion is abrupt and shocking. Mary Walker has just moved into her late parents' old place with her new husband, Michael, who has dreams of becoming a music producer. The newlyweds hike up the mountain, which Mary knows well, and in an instant Michael is gone. Right before Mary's eyes, he falls to his death from a ledge off the trail.

This is the second death Mary has witnessed on the mountain. As a teenager on the summer crew a decade before, she helped find the body of a drunken hiker who had died of exposure.

While Mary deals with her grief over her husband's death, she also becomes a mother confessor to a 16-year-old girl working on the mountain that summer. The girl is a mess. She aches to lose her virginity, falls in love with a young man too old for her and nearly succumbs to jealousy and heartbreak.

Mary also inherits a protector in 15-year-old Tobin Gough, a brilliant fellow with a good heart but a mentally troubled mother, a weak father and severe social handicaps. In Mary's case, Tobin's habits - following people and perching on rooftops - are endearing rather than creepy. She is both his wounded idol and the mother he never had.

The most haunted figure who comes to Cascom Mountain is Michael Walker's father, whom Mary barely knew before her husband's death. He comes for two reasons: to learn the particulars of his son's death and to negotiate the future of the grandchild he and his wife long for after Mary tells them at the funeral that she is pregnant.

As farfetched as Michael's death is, with these characters as a main cast, the story is one of promise. The problem is that they lack the complexity of real human beings. Williams never delves deeply enough into them to bring them to life.

Part of her problem may be that a summer in the North Country, even one as eventful as the summer in Down from Cascom Mountain, is too short for characters to change much. You don't want to think too much, for example, about how quickly Mary Walker seems to emerge from her grief or how transformative her one steamy night with an empathetic partner seems.

Williams does show skill in this first novel. Possibly her most fully realized character is Cascom Mountain itself. Its beauty is real and inviting, but you'd better respect it. Wander off the trail, pack too little water or under-dress, and you're putting your life at risk. In Williams's hands, Cascom Mountain is an indifferent natural wonder, knowable to the wary veteran of its trails, perilous to the careless wanderer.

Williams is also gifted in shifting from subplot to subplot and moving her story along. Down from Cascom Mountain is a page-turner because the reader cares about what happens to the people in it.

It's a shame these characters are so pat and some of the plot turns so transparently convenient.


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