Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Long River Home (Larry Smith) (8.5/10.0)

I love this novel. I love it not for what it is, but for what it represents. And what it represents is a continuation of the quintessential American storytelling tradition wherein family is intimately and irrevocably linked to the land that provides for its survival and it is the emotional drama of multiple generations of hardworking and hard-loving men and women that drives the story straight to the reader’s heart. It is the tradition first made popular by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then polished by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, and finally perfected by Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It and Ken Kesey in Sometimes a Great Notion. It is, quite simply, the tradition to which The Literate Man is dedicated. And it is a tradition that is largely absent from the pages of Amazon and the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, which are increasingly dedicated to the formulaic and the prurient.

The Long River Home follows four generations of the McCall family from 1861 through 1949 as they witness and experience the transformation of the Ohio River Valley from wilderness to agriculture to industrialization. Andrew McCall, solitary child of the Civil War and sometime bootlegger, is the patriarch of the family, and the wildness and wanderlust of his nature can be traced down the succeeding generations. Equally prominent in the family’s blood is the loyalty and stoicism brought by Andrew’s wife, Mariah, who manages to hold the family together even when events threaten to tear it apart. There is no unbelievable drama here—only the decisions, right and wrong, of the very human beings that inhabit the novel’s pages. But Smith treats them both fairly and subtly, and the reader comes away with the sense of having lived among the McCalls and having loved them in spite of, or perhaps because of, all of their flaws.

The Long River Home is not perfect. It is inconsistent at times, and the reader feels strangely closer to the historical characters than those that would be almost contemporaries. It is not in the same class as those classics mentioned above, though at times it does get within spitting distance of them. But it is a book that brings you into emotional contact with the characters that inhabit its pages and closer to an understanding of the human condition. And for that reason alone, it should be treasured.

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