Sunday, December 13, 2009

Leisurely Pacing Echoes Setting in Debut Novel ... And That's Not A Bad Thing. Not At All.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Next to a cast of nice, round, colorful characters, nothing pulls me into a book better than a vivid setting. I'm not just talking about pretty backdrops, I'm talking about story places that are so real, so complete, so vibrant that I not only want to visit there, but I want to buy up every acre of available real estate. For me, it's less about connecting to the landscape and more about bonding with the people, the rhythms, the very pulse of a place. When an author uses all the other elements of her story to echo and reinforce her setting, well, I'm pretty much a goner. I guess that explains why I found Leslie Goetsch's debut novel, Back Creek, so entrancing.

Although Goetsch's setting is fictional, she grew up in a similar Tidewater Virginia community. Her passion for these creekside enclaves is obvious from the way she describes her setting. She laughs at its backwater tendencies, pokes fun at its eccentricities, and hints at the danger lurking beneath its placid surface - but she does it all with such a gentle hand that it only adds to the charm of the place. The creek comes alive so well that it really takes center stage. All the other characters seem to exist only to support the real star - Back Creek.

Queen of the supporting actresses is 18-year-old Grace Barnett, who lives on the shores of the creek in the same home that has sheltered generations of her family. She awakens on the last day of May 1975 to the sound of a boat roaring through the no-wake zone outside her window. When she flies to the window to remind the boater to slow down, she witnesses a horrifying scene - the Boston Whaler barrels right into a pier. Although the police rule it an accident, Grace isn't so sure. Regardless, Tommy White is dead. The creek people plan a funeral and get on with life, ignoring any indication that a native son might have intentionally killed himself. For Grace, the funeral is a pivotal moment. She knew Tommy, of course, but it's not the tragedy itself that changes her life so irrevocably - it's who his death brings out of the woodwork, namely her sister, Lillian.

Like the creek itself, The Barnett Family has some murk churning below the surface. Not only has the eternally rebellious Lillian returned with a secret in tow, but Grace's father is drinking too much and her mother has gone on an extended visit to the country. It's her mother's absence that bothers Grace the most. Although Mother takes frequent trips back to her family's North Carolina tobacco farm, this trip has an ominous finality about it. With everything that's going on, it's exactly the wrong time for her to take off. Grace has only one person in whom she can really confide: 23-year-old Cal, a Vietnam vet, whom everyone knows is crazy. Still, he's got a weird steadiness that attracts Grace, even though her family warns her not to get to close to him.

Despite all the turbulence in her life, Grace decides The Barnetts are overdue for some community action. When the family shows up at the annual 4th of July barbecue, no one says a word about their topsy-turvy existence, because:

This was the way of the Creek, and we understood it. They had sized up the situation immediately, but knew it was against the rules to talk about it. We were allowed only polite conversation: the depths below the surface were better left dark and murky (131).

For bookish Grace, who prefers to spend her time on the moors with Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, the summer of 1975 will be a time of facing the dirt below her family's surface. It will be a time of growing up, of tackling the grim realities of life. It will be a time of truth. It will be a time to put aside storybook travails, to live life as Grace never has before. Or, in her own words:

...I knew I had been thrust into the middle of this mess, and I was beginning to sense that I would have to be the one to put the pieces together. These were not the romantic tragedies and comedies of fictional characters. This was the even stranger fiction of real people, and I would not be allowed to just sit back and experience it vicariously. I would have to live it right along with them (65).

As Grace deals with the conflicts of real life, she comes of age in a way that matures and strengthens her. For her, the summer of 1975 changes everything.

The thing I especially like about Back Creek is the pacing. It mimics the ebb and flow of the creek - mostly peaceful, but always with an underlying current of trouble. Compared with most modern fiction, the pace is definitely slow or leisurely - yet, the story never becomes boring. There's enough mystery and depth to keep it interesting. Goetsch's prose has a lovely subtlety that, once again, echoes her beloved creek. Her characters are real, her plot authentic, and the sense of place superb. All of this combines to create a memorable first novel. Back Creek's a different kind of book, but that's not a bad thing. Not at all.

I do have two issues with the book, only one of which really has to do with the novel itself. My problem is with the ending. It leaves a number of issues unresolved, making the story feel incomplete to me. No one likes finales that wrap everything up in tidy little boxes, but I do like to have a sense of closure when I finish a book. Back Creek's ending didn't quite accomplish this for me. My other complaint - confusion may be a better word - has to do with marketing. I can't understand this book's classification as young adult. Yes, its protagonist is a teenager, but even she admits that she doesn't relate well to people her own age. With its old-soul narrator, slower pacing, and timeless feel, I don't see Back Creek appealing to modern teenagers. Its bucolic cover certainly won't attract youthful attention. Again, this isn't a bad thing - in my opinion, Back Creek is an adult novel with a teenage narrator. It works. Quite well, in fact.

So, while Back Creek didn't fully satisfy my every literary need, it came close. It's unique, vivid and worthy. Even with danger lurking beneath, Goetsch proves that creekside is not a bad place to be. Not at all.

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language, underrage drinking (18 may not have been considered underrage in 1975, but it is in 2009), adult themes and nudity (although no real sex)

To the FTC, with love: I received a review copy of Back Creek from Bancroft Press' Harrison Demchick, who is, quite possibly, the nicest editor/screenwriter/marketing associate/odd jobs guy in the biz. Not that that had any influence on my review. I'm just sayin' ...

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