NORTHWEST CORNER by John Burnham Schwartz

Book Quote:

“Looking back on it, theirs is not a house of dramatic battles; it is a house of forced retreats across mountains and down through bitterly cold rivers. Ever retreating, ever glancing over your shoulder for the invisible enemy, who is a ghost. The war long ended; there is no front to fight on. The cause of the unholy conflict – the death of a child, a son, a brother – is unmentionable history.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (JUL 26, 2011)

Over 12 years ago, John Burnham Schwartz introduced us to two ordinary families facing an extraordinary crisis – the inadvertent death of a young boy, Josh Lerner, by a hit-and-run driver, a small-town lawyer named Dwight Arno. The book was Reservation Road, a wrenching psychological study about how a single moment in time can shatter an orderly world into tiny little shards.

Now, in a poignantly written sequel, Mr. Schwartz revisits the two families – the Arnos and the Lerners – years later, at the cusp of yet another crisis. But this time, Dwight Arno has served his time, moved from Connecticut to Santa Barbara in an attempt to redefine his life until his estranged son, Sam, shows up. And this time, it is Sam who is in trouble and struggling to come to grips with his anger and his pain.

I’m glad to report that Northwest Corner is every bit as good as Reservation Road, if not better. It sings with love and pain and pathos and the beat of the human heart as it strives for connection. Told in multiple viewpoints from both male and female perspectives – including a first-person rendition by Dwight – this book is as powerful as it is moving.

In clear, detailed images, John Burnham Schwartz defines the emotional state of his characters in just a few taut sentences. Take Dwight’s musings, for example: “We think we are solid and durable, only to find that, placed under a cruel and unexpected light, we are the opposite: only our thin, permeable skin holds us intact. Hemophiliacs walking through a forest of thorns.” Is that perfect or what?

Early on in the book, Dwight and Sam come together for the first time in many years, Dwight is working for an ambitious “family man” in a sports shop. Sam is on the run from college after an impulsive deed that threatens to uproot his life. He has been living with his mother, Ruth, who remains in Connecticut, at a crossroads in her own life. And the other family? The Lerners are fragmented, searching, still unable to break away from the emptiness and reach out to each other for healing. The unbearable pain has been replaced by a type of functionality in each of them. But the hole in the center of their lives remain.

The plot is woven slowly and deliberately, with just enough suspense to keep the reader turning pages but make no mistake: this is, at its core, a psychological novel and the “action” is mostly internal. The growth – the so-called “arc” – is an interior one, more than an external one. And therein lies the beauty of Northwest Corner.

Is there a shot at redemption? As Dwight Arno reflects, “Wait too long to speak up and you might just miss your shot. You may do your time, but you will never really get out.” Redemption, the author suggests, is difficult and elusive, but possible with enough effort.

And the title reinforces this fact. These families have traveled beyond the road where an accident cruelly transformed their lives to a wider territory with others. They may not have taken their places in the world quite yet, but they’re moving forward. In the end, this is a story of the emotional journeys that these families – and indeed, most of us — must eventually take to reach a point of self-salvation and completion. It helps to read Reservation Road first, but this book stands proudly on its own.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (July 26, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: John Burnham Schwartz
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Commoner

More “two families”  novels:

Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman

On Beauty by Zadie Smith


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July 26, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Character Driven, Contemporary, Family Matters, US Northwest

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