Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

9780399588563_p0_v2_s192x300Where did you grow up?  Is your childhood home still there with all its memories?  What if it were gone forever?  With the sixties as her timeframe and a small farming town two hours outside of Philadelphia as the setting, Anna Quindlen creates an unforgettable family in Miller’s Valley with a story of lives connected to both time and place.

The story follows the journey of the narrator, Mimi Miller, as she grows from a bright eleven year old who sells corn at a small stand outside her family farm to scholarship student at the University of Pennsylvania, and eventually, a medical doctor who returns to her hometown.  Her mother, a nurse, stabilizes the family with her income and her wisdom; her father, whose family has held the farm for two hundred years, is a stoic man who can fix anything from broken radios to the old sump pump in the basement; her older brothers split into Tommy, the appealing black sheep who goes off to fight in the Vietnam war and returns broken, and Eddie, the steady and boring  brother who grows up to capitalize on the destruction of the land.  Peripheral to the family core but just as important to the theme are others: Aunt Ruth, an agoraphobic with a secret, who never leaves the small house next door, and Steve, Mimi’s boyfriend. 

Quindlen’s main characters are ripe and deep, and you will remember them and wonder about them long after the story is over.

The villain is the government, personified by a slick developer, who is pressuring farmers and town folk to leave to make way for a government sponsored dam and reservoir, surrounded by new patchwork housing.  Clearly, some are happy to sell – including Mimi’s mother – while others, including Mimi’s father, dig in to preserve their heritage.  Mimi is scared of what the future holds but it seems there is no stopping progress – or the government.    

I wondered about the historical accuracy of the story; is there a town and a farm under water in Pennsylvania because of a dam realized through government intervention and industry?  The closest I could get is Codorus State Park and Lake Marburg in York County – both the timeframe and the location fit:

The creation Codorus State Park is tied to a cooperative effort between private enterprise and state and local government. The borough of Spring Grove and the P.H. Glatfelter Company worked together to dam Codorus Creek. The purpose of the dam was to provide drinking water for Spring Grove and to meet the industrial needs of the paper plant owned by the P.H. Glatfelter Company in the borough…a park was created on the shores of the newly made Lake Marburg.[1]

Lake Marburg gets its name from the small community of Marburg, home of a handful of buildings – including a farmstead – that was flooded in December 1966, when Codorus Creek was dammed. The land for the park was acquired as part of the Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act, with the governor approving the acquisition on December 10, 1964.  Underwater Ghost Town 

 

 

Quindlen is one of my favorite authors; I have a few of her books on my shelf – just cannot part with them.  I’ve quoted from her memoir – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – but I was happy to see another of her novels and anxiously pre-ordered it.  Although the historical aspects are informative, the message of hearth and home – and where it is – left me with a disturbing as well as comforting feeling.  As someone who is displaced, and still misses the place I called home – although it is not underwater and remains the same as when my children skated on the nearby pond –  I can relate to the last paragraph of the novel:

“I never go over that way…But every couple of years I have a dream.  I dive down into green water and I use my arms to push myself far below the surface and when I open my eyes there are barn roofs and old fences…But I swim in the opposite direction, back toward the light, because I have to come up for air.  I still need to breath.”

Life goes on, wherever you are, as long as you can keep breathing…

My Reviews of Quindlen Books:  

Brewster

Mark Slouka’s coming of age story – Brewster – set in the small town of Brewster, New York in the sixties, follows the lives of three unlikely friends: Ray, the abused Jimmy Dean rebel from the other side of the tracks; Karen, the beautiful girl from the good family who falls in love with him, and Jon Mosher, the narrator, a star runner on the high school track team who is battling the guilt of his older brother’s childhood death.

With strains of “Ordinary People” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” Slouka ties the lives together with an examination of how the young friends cope with their families and themselves while the history of the times – Woodstock, Kent State, the Vietnam War – evolves around them. Raw scenes of cruelty, hostility and hatred are countered with loving care and loyalty. As Ray tries to live with an abusive father, while trying to take care of his baby brother, Jon copes with his cold unloving mother who blames him for his brother’s death. The unlikely friendship between the two boys saves them – until the climax when an irretrievable incident threatens to destroy all their lives.

A fellow reader’s recommendation had me looking for this book when she described it as “literary fiction. Although I could guess where the story was headed, I still could not stop reading. I kept hoping they would escape Brewster and all that misery. Slouka follows through with a realistic ending, projecting into their adult lives. This is no happy ending, yet the point is made in the last lines of the book that stay with me – focus on how well the race is run, regardless of who wins:

Maybe we’d been meant to lose. Maybe, I thought, but he’d never believe it. He’d be sprawled out next to me, taking up space, and he’d smile that too-late smile and call the world’s bluff. So what if we’d lost? F… it. We’d run it anyway. We’d run it like it mattered.”