Heron River: It’s about what’s real

(Christian Courier review, February 27, 2012)

Promise me you’ll read this novel twice. Don’t worry, you’ll want to. The first time through you’ll be so caught up in the dramatic tension that, like me, you’ll simply gulp it down in unseemly drafts, impatient to discover how these disparate characters, who reside in a “small safe town,” are connected. There’s Madeline, a middle-aged teacher battling multiple sclerosis and other multiple losses. Her son Adam lives in a group home, developmentally-delayed from an accident she thinks is due to her own “critical error.” Imaginative and likable Jacob, an adopted kid, proves susceptible to the adrenaline of slipping into his customers’ homes when they’re away. Nineteen year old Orrin is a powder keg. Tara, a dedicated cop, serves and protects. The lives of these five individuals intersect, but not until the gathering dread reaches a gripping level.

 “The details are not the details,” said Charles Eames, noted mid-century modern designer. “They make the product.” His insight certainly applies to Hugh Cook’s achievement in this meticulously-constructed novel. Acutely observant, Cook builds an authentic community out of precisely-rendered and scrupulously-ordered details. The barbershop with its “slightly curved oak pew that Tony picked up when Sacred Heart installed an elevator several years ago,” the Native reserve, the mill and the river itself – all granite solid, crafted with measured description that’s spare and sinewy, never fussy. 

Such attention to detail informs Cook’s characters as well. No slap-dash here. Even minor characters are drawn with a particularity that implies more, like the fisherman with eyes “the colour of the beer bottle.” Every conversation, glance and gesture positions the characters in a real world, one we recognize as our own. And, familiarly, the currents of life along Heron River create a mash-up: callousness, sadism, and physical deterioration log-jammed with compassion, caring and courage.

In an Art Waves radio interview Cook remarked that the writer’s job is, first of all, “to tell stories.”  In Heron River he does just that, and it’s a compelling tale. But read the book again. Like a painting whose subject runs off the canvas, suggesting a wider plane, the narrative expands, probing our perceptions of what’s real. The small town of Caithness is indisputably real, but a spiritual reality hovers there, too, as patient and determined as a heron fishing, waiting to pierce the surface with sudden and irresistible energy.

The story opens with malevolence intruding on an ordinary Monday morning. It’s “garbage day.” The “stealthy, shabby” crows are cawing. Madeline listens to the Mamas and the Papas on the radio: “Oh, Monday morning, Monday morning couldn’t guarantee, That Monday evening you would still be here with me.” Prophetic lyrics. By evening, the Adam she knew was no longer with her, and successive revelations of compounded sorrow establish the wide-ranging effects of his fall, a spreading misery evoking a more cosmic fall.

Intimations of grace and hope
But there are other ripples, too, intimations of grace and hope. Madeline’s friend Donna has a smile that “continually plays at the corners of her mouth, as if she’s the perpetual recipient of good news.” When Madeline finds a photo of the mother she never knew in her father’s old Dutch Bible, she unearths an even better surprise – comfort in a place she’d overlooked. After a suspect punches Tara in the mouth, she must undergo the painstaking restoration of a front tooth. Her trusted dentist expertly affixes the new crown, the procedure containing within itself the faintest outline of another terra waiting to be restored.

Jacob’s quick-witted lying covers his misdeeds, his cunning (his surname is, in fact, Cunningham) reminiscent of that archetypal biblical deceiver who, nonetheless, was chosen and marked by the mysterious wrestler at Peniel. Young Jacob is likewise chosen, first in his adoption, and then again when he is recruited to be an altar boy at St. Paul’s. Leaving the sacristy after his first service, “invisible choirs of birds raise a riotous, chirruping psalm as if today were the first morning of a new creation.”

Adam, perennially on the lookout for the majestic heron as he walks along the river, is afforded a close-up view at last. As he approaches the bird, he realizes with amazement that the heron is moving ever so  deliberately to keep him in its sight as well. Eager to follow the bird as it flies off, Adam begins to cross a dangerously high railroad bridge above the river. He panics when a bystander’s warning shouts cause him to recognize his foolhardiness. Fortunately, his Native friend Keller is nearby to talk him back to safety. Before Adam reaches the bank, however, a grey shadow startles him, “large as the shadow of a moving cloud,” another allusive Old Testament nod. It’s the blue heron “flying over the water larger than he has ever seen it. As large as something he might see in a dream.” Rescued from the depths of a well, Adam has conquered the heights, thrilled with this rapturous meeting in the air.

These transcendent glimmers are not a facile overlay. Cook’s tenacious exactitude, whether it’s about baking a pie or cleaning a gun, that same truthfulness from which emerge his textured settings and fully-dimensioned characters, lends an equivalent veracity to these flickers of redemption. Nor are all questions tidily answered. Madeline wonders who is watching the 99 while the shepherd is out searching for the one lost sheep. Orrin, raised by an addicted mother in a highly dysfunctional home, is a complex figure whose actions and culpability challenge easy assumptions.

There’s so much more. Read this multi-layered book twice. Maybe even a third time. I will.


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