A CATSKILL TALE: When You Live by a River by Mermer Blakeslee – December 2015

Jane TompkinsReviewed by Jane Tompkins

If you’re interested in Delaware County life in the first half of the 20th century, or in reading a story that will keep you riveted to the page, this latest novel by Mermer Blakeslee will work for you. (She’s written two other novels, Same Blood and In Dark Water, and a non-fiction book, Conversations with Fear, based on her experience as a downhill racer and ski instructor.) I found the present novel extraordinary—for its vivid rendering of farm life along the East Branch in the 20s and 30s, for the inherent interest of the story and its characters, but most of all for its connection to the earth, to the cycles of the seasons, to animals and plants, and to the facts of birth, sex, and death, portrayed here with a power that surges from the page and into your blood. The word “chthonic,” “of or relating to the deities, spirits, and other beings dwelling under the earth,” seems to exist on purpose to describe this book.

Mermer Blakeslee grew up in Windham and lives now off Holiday Brook Road where she keeps horses and a large garden, not far from the site—now underwater—of the village where the novel takes place, Pepacton. She writes as if she were channeling actual persons who had come back to tell their story, lest we die ignorant of the way Catskill people once lived—in poverty, close to the land, to animals, to the hills and rocks and waters, to their senses, and to the primal instincts and emotions we spend so much time trying to forget. The feelings that came through most strongly for me were grief and sexual desire—both with irresistible force.

But here, to give you an idea of what her prose feels like, is a generalized

description of the life the novel represents:

The farmer who farms land that comes up through his family, he doesn’t walk over his property and see it the way you or I would, gliding over the top. He’s planted hip deep into the soil himself, or should I say buried, so when the corn or sorghum or buckwheat rises out of the ground toward the sky, he rises too, it’s his chance to rise, and that makes him feel every drop of rain and every bit of sun helping him to do so, not to mention the droughts and winds and floods standing in his way, and when each crop gets cut down, he too shrinks back toward the soil. And after all that rising and all that sinking and the weather in between, winter arrives as a welcome rest. The ground grows hard and seals itself up and the farmer inside the farmer can sleep. Not all of him, of course—cold doesn’t stop his give-and-take with the animals—but a lot of him.

It’s the farm that owns him, not the other way around . . . . 

The passage conveys what it meant to be a farmer in these parts before all the benefits of the industrial revolution had arrived. There are scenes that arouse desire, that pierce you with the agony of loss, and, at times, with the bitterness of economic deprivation—scenes that made me feel that the life I was living—with central heating, hot and cold running water, a computer, an electric stove, and indoor plumbing, supermarket shopping, and the TV watching—was not real life at all. The novel has a longing for the sharpness of pains and pleasures that living in a more primitive environment, closer to nature—affords pains and pleasures that people of our generation will never know, or can know only secondhand, through recreations such as this. Reading it made me grateful, both for tasting the hardships and satisfactions it captures, and for having been born at a time when I did not have to go without the comforts whose absence it celebrates.

The book also made me wonder if the two main characters, fifteen-year-old Leenie, who grew up on a hill farm, and her recently widowed Uncle Willis, who farmed the bottom land, weren’t to a certain degree idealized figures, or at least exceptional ones, whose capacity for experience and understanding ran deeper than that of most people in any time or place. Whatever the case, it was a privilege to inhabit the consciousness of these characters, and through them to enter a world that I’d had no sense of until I met them. The book is a gift to Catskill Mountain lovers. If you read it, it will stay in your blood. ~

Jane would like to hear from her readers:  janetompkins@bellsouth.net