Down From Cascom Mountain
Ann Joslin Williams
Bloomsbury: 325 pp., $25.
Ann Joslin Williams' father, Thomas Williams, was born in Minnesota but grew up in New Hampshire, living there until his death from lung cancer at 63 in 1990. Almost all of his work is set in New Hampshire, in particular the small fictional town of Leah, in which his best-known novel, "The Hair of Harold Roux," is set. Ann Williams was also raised in New Hampshire and, like her father before her, now teaches at the University of New Hampshire. She was a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and has been awarded many prizes for her shorter fiction. This is her first novel and it is, like the work of her father, steeped in the New Hampshire landscape and sensibility.
There is a ruggedness to that landscape, a craggy unpredictability in part because of the preponderance of granite and in part to the rivers and waterways that cut through the state at crazy angles. The people of New Hampshire are the rootstock of New England individuality (or cussedness). A grain of this grit exists in each one of Ann Williams' characters, despite their apparent vulnerabilities. The main character, Mary, grows up at the foot of the ominous Cascom Mountain.
When Mary was 17 and working with a National Forest Service crew on the mountain, a young man was found dead, a combination of alcohol and hypothermia. His girlfriend, an albino, last seen with him by passing hikers, disappears forever and becomes part of the local mythology — the ghost girl. The stormy light in New Hampshire is often trapped by pale white quartz pieces (often the size of boulders) and by the flinty mica in granite. This light, this ghost presence, permeates the novel.
Mary grows up, marries, and brings her husband back to the house at the foot of Cascom Mountain. Shortly after their happy arrival, her husband falls from a ledge and dies. From this point on, the novel is layered with death — past and present. A 16-year-old boy, Tobin, a neighbor of Mary's whose crazy mother has left him terrified and obsessive compulsive, attaches himself to Mary and tries to help her recover from her loss. A firefighter living on top of the mountain, in his way, offers solace.
Ann Williams' novel contains a smaller world than her father's novels; more accessible, the problems more familiar.
She follows her characters' moods more closely, with less of an emphasis on the cultural and historical context of her story. The reader is deeply invested, caught up in Mary's grieving, or in Tobin's failure to forgive his mother. Their stories are made memorable.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.