OLD BORDER ROAD by Susan Froderberg

Book Quote:

“My name is Katherine, same as my mother’s name, same as my mother’s mother’s name. I’ve never been a Kathy, never been a Kath, not a Katie or a Kate, not a Kat, a Kitty, a Kitten, not a Kit. Katherine I have always been, as Katherine I am today.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (DEC 09, 2010)

Dozens of books have promised the sentiment “for lovers of Cormac McCarthy” and left me sorely disappointed. But, in this claim, Froderberg is truly McCarthy’s literary offspring, echoing his hot, haunting brand of southwest essence, desert landscape, and gothic narrative elixir, if not yet fully capturing his linguistic sublimity and lethal, graveyard humor. In this ambitious debut novel, the author explores desperate and broken souls living through a drought in southern Arizona—a land of sand and scrub, cactus stands, spiny shrubs, bitterbrush, dusty maiden, diamondbacks, rodeos, distant foothills, punishing climate, and an endless starlit sky. If you don’t like McCarthy’s prose style, you surely won’t relish Froderberg’s highly stylized prose and narrative, either. If, like me, you adore McCarthy’s (particularly his southwest) lore, such as The Border Trilogy, then you can potentially connect with and savor this quasi-mythical tale.

Seventeen-year-old bride Katherine lives with her (significantly older) husband, Son, and his kind-hearted and affluent parents, Rose and “Rose’s Daddy,” on their ranch on Old Border Road, in a stately adobe house above an aquifer. Rose’s Daddy calls Katherine “Girl” (affectionately), and Son calls her Darlin.’ She accepts her new identity and learns how to live and work on the ranch, including horse riding, barrel racing, and driving the water truck. Besides prospering from the ranch, Rose’s Daddy channels water to the coast, just like his father did, earning a heavy bounty and a lot of frowns from the local people. He tells Girl the history of the nomads who wandered to this land, leading up to his own father’s industrious wealth.

“They sought a fabled people within a fabled landscape. They sought a promised life…They walked across sandbanks of hot ash, the ground on which they walked trembling like paper sheeting, as if it were a fiery lake bubbling and steaming right beneath them.”

The narrative, told in Katherine’s voice, reads a lot like gothic fable. Although set in contemporary times, there is a timeless quality about it, and the author’s temporal sense is frequently ephemeral. Like McCarthy, she plays with tenses, and sustains a biblical subtext and timbre.

“The words as they were chalked, the sand and the dust, the grime and the duff and the tar and the oil and the mud, and whatever else of the earth we collect along the way, will all be washed away in the moon after, once we are back to here where we are, to begin another beginning.”

Katherine tells the story of the drought, of Son’s cruel infidelities, stemming from Rose’s Daddy’s infidelities, of Rose’s fragility, and the ghosts of stories that still haunt the adobe house. The desire of Katherine to stand by Son is increasingly frustrating as the story progresses, but taken as poetic fable, I was able to tolerate it. The characters are often not what they seem, and some shocking revelations are even more unnerving to the reader as the protagonist continues to honor her spousal obligations. Most characters do not develop over time; rather, who they are amplifies, the aperture widens, and the person you see is more resonant and less inscrutable, but unchanged. Unlike McCarthy, the author portrays a woman with some finesse.

There is a New Age priest, known as Padre, who beguiles his congregation with a noble mien and zen-like homilies, and whose relationship with Katherine leads her to a further maturity of mind, while she retains her fastness of character, deepening it. A rancher and businesswoman named Pearl Hart, her husband, Ham, and her daughter, also named Pearl, round out the story and enlarge the myth and mystery of the town.

You don’t read this novel for the individual characters but for their fate, and for Katherine’s. You read it for the themes of disillusionment and strength; the narrative grip of lush, elliptical language; the earthly elements that imperil and fortify these marginal people; and for the landscape that resounds like a character. You tacitly observe what is in a name, and what is not.

At times, the author’s talent overreaches, and the overwrought language and florid descriptions threaten to choke the narrative flow. I occasionally experienced reader fatigue. Froderberg hasn’t yet harnessed the nuanced linguistics and tension of McCarthy and his ability to create a chemical reaction in the reader, although she clearly is aspiring to. The tale acquired some dark humor toward the end, which the story was begging for at intervals. The problem with her style so closely resembling the master is that she hasn’t fully developed her own unique one. When she fails to attain McCarthy’s bracing, muscular tongue and allegorical depth, the reader notices her self-conscious drive to try.

As a novelist, this is Susan Froderberg’s first rodeo, and I am inclined to give the rope some slack. She is a debut author that will surely evolve over time. This is an earnest, inspired start, and facets of the story were well realized. I was exceptionally moved when I came to the last line of the story, a sentence that touched me with its purity, subtlety, and pith. Those final words fall strikingly smooth on the page, seizing the moment with indelible ink, without a hitch, without a sound.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company (December 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AUTHOR WEBSITE: BookPage interview with Susan Froderberg
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More Southwesterns:

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Crossers by Philip Caputo


December 9, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Debut Novel, Theme driven, US Southwest, Wild West

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