Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Vermont Fiction With Life's Painful Mystery, HIDDEN VIEW, Brett Ann Stanciu

When I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and then its two sequels, there were plenty of times when I said "No way, this couldn't happen" -- but they didn't add up to much, compared to the amount of truth in Stieg Larsson's dark Swedish trilogy. The first book's original title on publication in Sweden was "Men Who Hate Women" and this noted crime series paid attention to the inevitable results of such brutality: shattered families, increased darkness and evil, and a young woman adept in opening up puzzles as if they were infected wounds, and coolly and professionally removing the diseased portions of the body.

Now Brett Ann Stanciu, in a debut novel published by tiny Green Writers Press of West Brattleboro, Vermont, has shown that an American woman can meet the same high bar, in painting the reality and the consequences of domestic violence.

Young, sheltered, and completely convinced by an older man's wooing, Fern has married in haste and taken on the enormous task of being the wife of a hard-luck farmer with big dreams, on an isolated Vermont hill farm. HIDDEN VIEW is also the name of the farm itself. Stony soil, trees whose hearts have rotted, a barn crumpling and a house that hasn't been maintained -- for Fern, these are hidden aspects that she can ignore. She defines her world in terms of her own possession of it: "my husband Hal," and "dear darling baby girl" Tansy, and her view of herself:
a young mother and woman, in love with her husband, a farm spread out around us with a thousand different potentials.

He bent toward me and kissed my lips, his mouth laced with coffee. "Ah," he whispered. Then he drew back and with his free hand waved grandiosely.  ... In the warm weather, the fields sprouted green corn and alfalfa. A bat swooped over the garden's center, a dark darting blur, feeding, and then vanished. Tree frogs chorused, alive. I found myself nodding, yes, yes,  my daughter's minute hand tugging at my shirt collar.

Perhaps that yes was simply the song that carried me along through those early days of our marriage. All around me I saw nothing but possibility, never a hand held up to say stop, stop.
Stanciu shows, through Fern's eager eyes, the verdant beauty and potential of the hill farm. Beyond her thriving vegetable gardens and her brave kitchen efforts and her committed and marvelous mothering of Tansy as baby and toddler, though, a dark shadow is spreading. At first she defines it in terms of Hal's drinking -- the bourbon poured with abundance into a jam jar and consumed in a way that fuels his angers and his insistence. To Hal that garden doesn't count, the child's a distraction costing work hours, and the cows in the barn stink and remind Hal of his father; only making maple syrup matters, the amassing of Vermont "liquid gold" for the rising market. And the accidents that go with the process, whether his burned foot or the scorched sugaring pans that Fern doggedly scrubs and labors to save, are nothing compared to the flame of Hal's own obsession with remaking the farm in his own image.

Early in the novel, we're blindingly aware, in a way that Fern can't afford to be, that Hal is a menace, someone putting Fern's life at risk and demanding that she give up hope of being happy -- including the nurturing of their daughter. Fern's stubborn resistance protects Tansy, for the most part, although the little girl's imaginary rabbit friends begin to utter loud protests. How much will it take before Fern admits the situation can't be saved? Isolated, friendless, cut off by her own distant mother, she's not seeing any way off the farm. And like spring itself, pressing the maple sugaring season into frantic action, then washing the days away into the melt and greening of the world, Fern clings to the possibility of her original dream of marriage and home.

Just as it seems it all must tumble down, and Fern must finally admit it's time to go -- somehow, anywhere -- the careful balance of forces turns untenable, with the arrival at the farm of Hal's long-vanished brother Lucien, who has some amount of hold on the farm itself, and a tenderness with baby Tansy that completely undoes Fern's defenses. Yet she can't quite let go:
I believed Hal and I would come back to each other, this rift between us a rainy season that would, eventually, disperse and clear. I believed we would grow old together. ... I believed to get there, I had to endure through here. All things in due course. Hands to the shovel. Lean into your work. Persevere.
Early in the book, I was swept by a certainty of truths in HIDDEN VIEW: that Stanciu knew the bizarre and fragile construction that people's self-deceptions can frame. And that she was telling, out in public, against all the rules, the heartbreaking story of far too many women I've known, at one time or another, who struggled to make their dreams come to reality in situations where any detached observer would have said instead, "Leave! Get out while you can!"

This isn't crime fiction in the classic sense, but the mystery of Lucien's life and disappearances turns out to circle Fern's struggle. And the questions of loyalty to person, commitment to dreams, and betrayal of the helpless are as vivid as the flames in the sugarhouse, as sweet and dangerous as the hot boiling maple sap on its way to becoming valuable syrup.

There's so much truth in this book that at some point, it stops being "fiction" and stands instead as a portrait, layered, complex, and wise. The Vermont that we love, the farms that we treasure, the children we nurture are fully present.

And so is the darkness, and despair. What is the value of a view that's hidden, even from the viewer? Fern, Hal, Lucien, Tansy: their lives depend on the answer.

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