Down From Cascom Mountain

by Ann Joslin Williams
(Bloomsbury: 325 pp., $25.) 

Ann Joslin Williams’ father, Thomas Williams was born in Minnesota but grew up inand into a citizen of New Hampshire, living there until his death at 63, in 1990, of lung cancer. Almost all of his work is set in New Hampshire, in particular the small fictional town of Leah, in which his best-known novel,  “The Hair of Harold Roux,” is set. Ann Williams was also raised in New Hampshire and now teaches, like her father before her, at the University of New Hampshire. She was a Wallace Stegner fellow and has won many prizes for her shorter fiction. This is her first novel and it is, like the work of her father, steeped in the New Hampshire landscape and the New Hampshire sensibility.

There is a ruggedness to that landscape, a craggy unpredictability due in part to the preponderance of granite and in part to the rivers and waterways that cut through the state at crazy angles. Neighboring Vermont, by comparison, with its rolling fields, farmland, and maple stands looks as gentle, as tame as Connecticut (and if you want to make a Vermonter really mad, you’ll say so.) The people of New Hampshire are the rootstock of New England individuality (or cussedness). They do not suffer fools (or people from Connecticut). They value old- fashioned values (respect for privacy, do-it-yourself-ism, good fences make good neighbors, etc.) and freedom from all forms of bureaucracy and government intervention, most of all taxes. Hence the state motto: “Live Free or Die,” which the Democrats in Vermont refer to as, “Live for free or die.” There is a reason beyond convention that New Hampshire is the first stop on the campaign trail in American politics or that so many of our Poet Laureates over the years have hailed from New Hampshire. It is a rough crucible; a metaphor for a hand-hewn country, a place of extra hard winters, not much money and carefully guarded determination. 

A grain of this grit exists in each one of Ann Williams’ characters, in spite of their apparent vulnerabilities. The main character, Mary, grows up at the foot of the ominous Cascomb Mountain. When she was seventeen and working with a National Forest Service crew on the mountain, a young man was found dead, a combination of alcohol and hypothermia. His girlfriend, an albino, last seen with him when he died by passing hikers, disappears forever and becomes part of the local mythology—the ghost girl. The stormy light in New Hampshire is often trapped by pale white quartz pieces (often the size of boulders) and by the flinty mica in granite. This light, this ghost presence, permeates the novel. 

Mary grows up, marries, and brings her husband back to the house at the foot of Cascom Mountain. Shortly after their happy arrival, her husband falls from a ledge and dies. From this point on the novel is layered with death—past and present. A sixteen-year-old boy, a neighbor of Mary’s whose crazy mother has left him terrified and obsessive compulsive, attaches himself to Mary and tries to help her recover from her loss. A firefighter living on top of the mountain, in his way, offers some solace.

The work of both writers, Ann and Thomas Williams, father and daughter, is saturated in the light and spirit(beautiful, but often dark and menacing) of New Hampshire. It is not the same feeling that one gets from the despairing poverty of Carolyn Chute’s Maine in “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” or the hardscrabble Massachusetts ofEdith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome “ The birds-eye view of human activity is more other-worldly; flecked with blinding light, roads to the future blocked by fate.