A SUDDEN LIGHT by Garth Stein
You may recognize Garth Stein’s name from his popular book The Art of Racing in the Rain. Stein hits another home run with A Sudden Light. It’s a six-generational family saga, a coming of age story and a ghost story all rolled into one great book.
Trevor Riddell, age 14, goes with his father to visit the family home place in the Northwest, a magnificent mansion built at the turn of the 20th century. Riddell House is built on 200 acres of park-like timber land and was built by patriarch Elijah Riddell. Elijah was a robber baron of the worst kind and was responsible for clear cutting thousands and thousands of virgin forest. He made fortune upon fortune doing it. The exterior of this house is made of 50 foot tree trunks which symbolize the family wealth. Also symbolic is the derelict condition of the house and the loss of the family fortune over time.
Because Trevor’s father, Jones Riddell was estranged from his family, Trevor is shocked by this property and shocked by his strange Aunt Serena and demented grandfather Samuel who live in this house. He is also shocked by the two ghosts who also continue to live in the house, his grandmother Isobel and his great uncle Ben. Trevor sets out in true teenage boy, Tom Sawyer fashion to “find the truth.” This huge house has innumerable rooms and hidden passages which Trevor uses while doing his investigative work. And he succeeds. He finds the disheartening truth amidst a tragedy that forever changes his life and the lives of subsequent generations. Trevor is an adorable character and just like with our own teenage boys, you love him in spite of that underdeveloped frontal lobe!
Garth Stein just doesn’t throw in a couple of ghosts into the plot line for fun. During the turn of the 20th century, Spiritualism was a popular belief system that claimed spiritual guides could communicate with the dead. The dead could offer guidance, knowledge or relate their love of the still-living. This communication could be done through seances or automatic writing. It was believed that the spirits of the dead could visit the living, could move objects and directly communicate as well. Mary Todd Lincoln believed in Spiritualism and had seances to try and communicate with her dead son. Also World War 1 with its mass casualties gave opportunities for believers to try and communicate with dead loved ones. It’s really a fascinating side note in American history. So the author uses Spiritualism as a vehicle to have dead characters participate in the plot line. Uncle Ben passes on information to Trevor that no one else knows.
It was poignant to read this novel after finishing The Overstory by Richard Powers which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Elijah Riddell is characteristic of the villains in The Overstory- clear cutting swaths of virgin timber with no forethought of preservation or conservation measures. Elijah despises President Teddy Roosevelt’s efforts to preserve land by establishing national parks. To Elijah it was a waste of good timber, and therefore a waste of potential earnings. Uncle Ben, however, would be a hero in Power’s book because Ben understood and loved the environment on the same deep level that many do today. The two books make good companion readings, even though I discovered that serendipitously.
Another book on my list to read is The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. I read a review of this book on the blog Brain Pickings, then casually mentioned it to my sister-in-law Kim. She told me this was the book her husband/my brother Scott was reading last summer when he died suddenly of a heart attack. I screened shot the cover from his Facebook page as you see below. Growing up my siblings and I were always out in the woods and always climbing trees. I still have a crooked bone and scars from my falls. I expect this book will touch some tender spots in my heart.
#garthstein #asuddenlight #richardpowers #theoverstory #spiritualism #robberbarons