ON 15 December 1944 in a snowbound trench in the Ardennes, a shell- shocked soldier cradles a sick comrade. The soldier is one Raymond Smith, a farm boy from upstate New York. The boy he struggles valiantly to save is his brother, his mother's favourite son.
Action switches quickly to a farm in upstate New York, where the once heroic Raymond is now a drunken farm worker. It is 1949. He lies hung- over in a cot in a litter-strewn bungalow. The mother of his four-year- old daughter lies in a casket in the main house, where her funeral will take place later that day. He suffers alone because he and his dead love, Barbara Jean Racket, never quite married. Raymond Smith may have started drinking to quiet the shell-shock, but life on the farm with his putative in-laws was another sort of trench warfare.
The Racket family is aptly named. They scream at one another constantly. There is Grandfather Racket, a querulous old farmer who is now grief-stricken at the loss of his daughter. There is Howard Racket, a fat and jealous son who has left the farm to go into his wife's undertaking firm. This wife, Shirley Racket, is menace itself, and it is her brutal desire that provides the motor for the book. Barren, she now plans to snatch Raymond and Barbara Jean's daughter, Lucy, on the pretext that she can offer the little girl a more wholesome environment. This is her funeral home, where she plans to tutor the child in "mortuary sciences".
The Rackets' incessant quarrels have a comic simplicity (Q: "What did you put in this soup?" A: "Don't ask me, ask Campbell's!"). Elsewhere, though, the dialogue falters badly; Alison Dye has a poor ear for nuance. Rather, she piles on folksy phrases: people saying "dang this" and "dang that" in places with names such as Little Hoosick. It is no better when she writes conversations between lovers, or when she is putting words in the mouths of French resistance workers.
There is a deeper false note struck by this book. For the era 1944 to 1949, the writer is too much the good modern liberal. Raymond has post- traumatic shock disorder. Barbara Jean was less a post-war farm girl, more a prototype single mother for the 1990s: she worked, read books voraciously and demanded independence. She rejected communist witch hunts so early as to qualify as prescient. Naturally, after she died, the world fell apart without her.
Insofar as the book is convincing, it is through carefully accumulated detail. Dye's descriptions of the plowshare, folk history of upstate New York and a WWII soldier's kit are impressive. Yet her voice begins to drone as she calmly drives her characters to rack and ruin. Though she appears to have enjoyed some of the folklore, it would seem, on the whole, that Alison Dye did not approve. The story ends on a note of nihilism.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies