Character seeks solitude in the wilderness
It is minus 28 degrees when we meet Lily Martindale. A hermit/caretaker for a great Adirondack camp, Martindale is trudging through the snow, hauling a toboggan loaded with hay that she will feed to the deer who trail behind, waiting for the hay to be broken into flecks for them. Martindale has been doing this for almost 10 years, ever since she fled her philanthropic efforts in New York City. During that time, she has become more eccentric and more storied. “Overhead, a raven calls. Together they are the stuff of legend. Animals follow her. She smells of them. People say she talks to them.”
Lily has returned to the camp where she spent her earliest, happy, years. Author Mary Sanders Shartle quotes poet Jeanne Robert Foster to tell us why she returned: “The winds blow as they list,/And love goes where it will,/And I would go where my heart is/And sit on a lonely hill.”
But returning to where her heart is, the security she had as a child in these woods remains elusive. And on this very cold day, the world beyond the Adirondacks literally shatters her solitude. Air Force A-10s on a training run fly low over Lily, frightening her and the deer. Her response is to fire her .22 at one of the low-flying planes.
The echo of that shot, which quite amazingly does hit the plane, is heard in the lives of the two people who have always cared for Lily: a would-be suitor named Jim Porter and Eleanor Winslow, Lily’s childhood friend, whose parents owned the camp.
What follows is the beginning of the story, and Shartle spins it very well. First we are teased into realizing that something happened when Eleanor and Lily were children, something not only painful but public. For a time, photographs of the children were on the front page, their sadness part of the national conversation -?but it is not clear why.
Shartle slowly reveals the mystery (which I will not) and its impact on Lily. While Eleanor overcomes the tragedy she and Lily experienced, Lily lurches from one personal dead end to another. She attends school in Switzerland, she gives birth to a child, works in New York City -?but nothing matches the memory of her Adirondack childhood.
Shartle suggests Lily is seeking in the wilderness what many seek in church. Each chapter begins with a verse or two from a hymn -?if this were a movie we would hearthe music between scenes. The verses reflect the content of the chapters and how the characters respond. In addition to the hymnal references, Shartle writes of chimes heard on the wind. In this way, the Lily’s wilderness is ecclesial and sacramental.
Unfortunately, as her firing upon the jets indicates, Lily’s “church” does not bring her healing or salvation. The incident, instead, brings her to the attention of the authorities and hospitalization.
At the hospital she is cared for by a classmate from her Swiss boarding school, now a Lake Placid doctor, who remembers her fondly. Eleanor, Jim, and her daughter reconnect with Lily. This is no warm and fuzzy Hallmark conclusion, however. It is realistic and ambiguous, but the novel ends with hope that Lily’s future will be warmer and less lonely.
Shartlehas written a rich novel. She captures the “otherness” of the Adirondack camp, with its family and seasonal rituals, and its solitude. She has created a troubled character who finally puts the pieces of her life into a whole. And she creates the story within the larger context of bits of prayers people have sung for centuries.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.