In this issue, the featured novel openings are set in places as far apart as Vietnam and Scotland, Hyderabad and Brazil, Cuba and California. Several of them focus on travelers coming from other lands, driven by a variety of motivations: greed, love, faith, duty. Inevitably, in stories that involve people from different backgrounds, clashes and misunderstandings ensue. And such encounters became the theme that emerged as I read these ten disparate openings, chosen without reference to each other but nevertheless possessing a common thread.
In the opening of Alix Christie’s novel THE SHINING MOUNTAINS, set in the 1840s in what is now Idaho, Scottish traders interact with Native American tribes, and curiosity on both sides is evenly balanced with wariness—tragically justified, on the part of the Native Americans, though the protagonists, one from each side, find a way to build a life together. Curiosity, along with the somewhat callous confidence of ex-pats in a foreign land, also plays a large role in Arthur Powers’ novel SHADOW COMPANION, about American businessmen and diplomats in 1970s Brazil who become increasingly invested in the complex political upheavals of their adopted homeland.
Zeenath Khan, in THOSE HALCYON DAYS, brings to life the last moments before one nation, India, subsumed a separate state, Hyderabad. Khan describes the opulent world of Hyderabad’s upper classes on the eve of 1947, when India gained independence from the British and assumed authority over many of the subcontinent’s smaller principalities. In BITTER MAGIC, Nancy Kilgore depicts a religious rather than a political conquest— similarly decisive, though more gradual—in seventeenth-century Scotland. Portraying the clash between ancient Celtic magic and the stern tenets of the Christian Covenanters, Kilgore delineates the many threads of the Scottish Reformation.
In Mae Physioc’s novel DUSK HERE, DAWN THERE, an American woman travels to Vietnam to learn more about the two men she spent her adult life loving—both soldiers in the Vietnam War, and both possessing many more secrets than she realized when they were alive. In this opening a larger conflict shadows the misunderstandings between individuals, and such is also the case in WOODY, Cathy Adams’ novel about a young boy left behind accidentally by his Alabamian family at an “authentic Indian village.” In their interactions with the Native Americans, the family’s ignorance highlights the deep divide between the two worlds, foreshadowing Woody’s own alienation from his relatives.
The arrogance of white visitors in native cultures often begs for retribution, and Mark Cecil provides a slow-burning comeuppance for his main character in THE THINNING, a novel about a narcissistic American professor who laughs at a Mayan legend in Mexico, only to find it inexorably shaping the next eighteen years of his life. In contrast, equipped with humility rather than arrogance, American visitors can sometimes broaden their world-view, as in Edward McSweegan’s novel THE FEVER HUT. This novel’s protagonist is a white doctor in the American invasion of Cuba in 1898, who battles an epidemic of yellow fever and makes friends with an array of unexpected people, many of them Cubans.
Steven Smith, in THE GREAT DISRUPTION, depicts what may happen to all humanity if we encounter an unstoppable disease. In this post-apocalyptic novel, in which over 99% of the earth’s population has died, the clashes take place not between two living cultures but in the survivors’ attempts to build a new civilization on the ruins of an old one. Jill Yonit Goldberg, on the scale of a single family, tells a similar tale in AFTER WE DROWNED. When a troubled, alcoholic man survives an explosion on an oil-rig, his family’s way of life is shattered, and they must figure out a way to rebuild despite the insuperable barrier between Michael, traumatized by his experience on the rig, and his struggling family.
So, whether in families, marriages, nations, or religions, we see the confusion that arises when two worlds of experience collide with one another. One can’t—and shouldn’t—deny the enormous devastation that Western civilizations have wrought on other cultures around the world, and that long-reaching destruction is vividly depicted in many of these openings. Yet the ten novels also show the immense variety of human interaction, and there is significance in the fact that their characters, though with difficulty and heartache, so often find ways to connect.
— Ursula DeYoung, Founding Editor
Table of Contents
WOODY – Cathy Adams
THE THINNING – Mark Cecil
THE SHINING MOUNTAINS – Alix Christie
AFTER WE DROWNED – Jill Yonit Goldberg
THOSE HALCYON DAYS – Zeenath Khan
BITTER MAGIC – Nancy Kilgore
THE FEVER HUT – Edward McSweegan
DUSK HERE, DAWN THERE – Mae Physioc
SHADOW COMPANION – Arthur Powers
THE GREAT DISRUPTION – Steven Smith