I just read a review of Garth Stein’s latest novel, A Sudden Light, which called it a “gorgeous and magnificently atmospheric” read. My thoughts exactly.
I mean, what’s not to love about a book that pretty much has it all – mystery, history, tragedy, familial dysfunction (lots of it), forbidden love, redemption and even ghosts.
The tale revolves around a family’s return to their legendary ancestral home that is tucked into the forest overlooking Seattle’s Puget Sound. Built from massive whole trees, with the fortune amassed during the booming timber industry, this creaking, groaning, and slowly rotting manse plays a major role in the book. But it’s the trees and our relationship to nature that I found to be at the heart of this tale.
Throughout, Stein deftly entwines the history of the timber industry of the Pacific Northwest during the 19th and 20th centuries. It was an industry, he says, which was very dangerous for workers and extremely lucrative for the timber barons. The same could be said of the timber industry in Michigan during the same period. It was also a time when vast swaths of land were clear-cut and turned into millions and millions of board feet.
I thought about all this as I wandered around the swamp near my house a few weeks ago. It’s a place that is usually inaccessible by foot, but a recent thaw and freeze made it possible to get back to the hemlock groves where the deer bed down and the bobcat hides. I stopped dead in my tracks when I nearly walked into an enormous white pine, one I had never noticed before. As I stood next to this tree (later it took three of us to get our arms around it), I thought about the timber industry in Michigan and how finding a tree this size has become such a rarity. I tried to imagine what the landscape must have looked like before the heyday of the state’s logging industry, when it was covered with these giants. I was picturing what my great uncle John saw as he cooked under the tent in a northern Michigan lumber camp. Was he surrounded by acres and acres of monsters like the one I was standing in front of? Had he felt sad to see them loaded onto sleds and hauled off to Chicago or the east coast to become buildings and railroads?
In Stein’s research for A Sudden Light he climbed an 800-year-old redwood tree. I’ll never see the world from the top of my white pine, but I have a pretty good idea of what it might be like – in the words of Trevor Riddell, Stein’s 14-year-old narrator:
The world spread out before me in all directions, and I clung to the swaying spar of tree as the wind circled us and pushed us about. The mountains and the water and the city sparkled in the distance. The houses and the people below…In the quiet at the top of the tree, I heard the music of the breeze as it drifted past my ears. In a mash of dizzying colors and movement, I found clarity of sight. In that moment I knew why Ben and Harry had climbed trees to the very top; I knew what they felt; I felt what they felt.
Garth Stein will make a National Writers Series appearance on April 21 at 7 pm. More information or to purchase tickets