Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson

Sometimes a book comes along that is just beautiful and moving and special. Susan Henderson's novel The Flicker of Old Dreams is one such novel. Set in the small, economically depressed western town of Petroleum, Montana, this is the story of a woman who has never fit in but has lived there all her life and a man who has returned to the town that drove him away years ago in order to be there for his dying mother. It is not a love story; it is a self-acceptance story. And it is heartbreaking and gorgeously rendered.

Mary is the embalmer in her father's funeral home. Her profession marks her out as strange in this rural farming community but she's been considered odd since her lonely, motherless childhood. Her painfully introverted, socially awkward personality hasn't made it any easier for her to fight against her outcast persona, at best ignored and at worst mocked. She's stayed in Petroleum helping her father but that was never her dream. Her dream, once upon a time, was to go to art school and become an artist. Now her only art is in preparing the people who come through the funeral home. The dead accept her ministrations, allowing her to feel an accepted part of things in ways that she hasn't since she was small. When she was a child, there was a terrible, tragic grain elevator accident at work where a boy on the verge of adulthood, a boy who was a star athlete, a boy who embodied everything that the town wanted to celebrate, died horribly. His younger brother Robert was with him at the time and town lore has it that it is he who caused the accident, or at least deserved the blame. Although still a teenager himself, Robert left town after his brother's death. In the aftermath of the accident, the other children allowed Mary, as the daughter of the undertaker, to reenact the tragedy with them, giving her a brief taste of acceptance that soon faded away. It is only when Robert reappears in town to spend his mother's last days with her and facing the scorn and anger of the unforgiving and downtrodden who blame him for the accident and the subsequent closure of the granary, that Mary realizes the cruelty and insularity of a town sitting in judgement, a town that has been only marginally kinder to her through the years.

Both Mary and Robert have been rejected by the people of the town so it is not perhaps unlikely that they should find each other, tapping a place in each other's soul that no one else in Petroleum has ever bothered to touch. Mary narrates the novel, infusing her narration with all the loneliness in her. Her life echoes with sadness and exclusion and Robert brings a measure of understanding with him when he returns home. When Mary must go against her father's long-settled plans, plans that don't take into consideration Robert or his mother's needs and wants but instead the town's wants, she finds a measure of courage and self and rightness that she has never tried to use before.

Henderson doesn't tie things up neatly. Mary fails Robert and herself multiple times even as she knows she's failing. She is drawn as knowing her flaws, her inability to communicate, her outsider status, but is unable to change, and definitely not as quickly as she might have wanted. She is a thoughtful narrator and the quiet resurrection of her dreams comes only haltingly. In Petroleum and in Mary, Henderson evokes a town hopeless with defeat and a main character who might just find her way out and away from the desperate rigidity and angry lashing out that this hopelessness has created. The writing is gorgeous and almost elegiac feeling even while it acknowledges the wrongs the town has done to Mary and to Robert and the quiet desperation that pervades many of its inhabitants' lives. This is very much a story of relationship and its lack, of the sins of the past carried forward in perpetuity, and the slow breaking away from forever acquiescing to what others think and want. It is a beautiful but realistic obituary for a place fading away, slowly and painfully, and the people who are forever marked by that place and its history but who finally need a life lived in wider opportunity, in greater acceptance, and in understanding.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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