Up north, and farther north
by Keith Taylor
I'm a sucker for books placed in northern Michigan. That's simply because the area that begins somewhere north of Traverse City and keeps moving north across the straits and then across Lake Superior to Canada and down the rivers toward Hudson Bay that whole area of water and forest has become my standard for a beautiful landscape. But I'm proprietary about my landscape: I'm hard on a book that doesn't get it right.
Liesel Litzenburger, native of Harbor Springs, gets it right. Her novel The Widower is often beautifully heartbreaking. As it follows its battered characters from tragedy to the first glimmers of redemption, it places her interesting people exactly within their environment. By the third chapter, Litzenburger has established her method for telling her story. We know by then that this novel will be told in episodes that move through four or five major characters and that these episodes will jump from the present to various places in the past.
Swanton Robey and his wife have gone off a turn above Lake Michigan on a cold January evening and have crashed onto the ice below. The wife is dead, and Swan almost so. So The Widower begins. As Robey begins his years of recovery, we begin to learn the stories of the people who cluster around him, to help him, knowingly or not, as he learns to live and to love again. Litzenburger carries her story along with a memorably lyric prose, one that is good with character but often exquisite with landscape. Just listen to this short passage, taken from near the end of the novel:
It's 10:38 a.m. and they've been up and driving since six, coffee in Styrofoam cups, then the motel sign falling away in the rearview mirror, replaced by a wall of trees, dense forests melting into hills, slopes of rolling green, the lake disappearing around a curve. Then a fence sliding down the edge of a
huge expanse, open field, the bottom marked by a wide, flat valley, one river, two, crossing, recrossing. The landscape moving with them, against them, a shifting kaleidoscope, tipping and turning, all shape and color, backdrop.
What really matters, of course, is how Litzenburger puts all of this together in the life of her characters. Episode by episode, their various stories become clear, their connections with each other more certain and more necessary. A quiet and, to my mind, quite realistic undertone of magic helps these characters discover each other and learn their roles in their small community of suffering and redemption. That tone, the people, and the place where they live combine to make The Widower a book that will live in its readers' imaginations. And, yes, it will live more completely for those of us who share its author's love of the northern landscape.
Liesel Litzenburger reads from The Widower and more recent work at the U-M's Residential College Auditorium on Thursday, March 8.
[Review published March 2007]