Ann Joslin Williams’ first novel, Down from Cascom Mountain, follows troubled young people in an idyllic lodge in New Hampshire for one summer.
It’s hard to sympathize with the heroine of Down from Cascom Mountain, the first novel by Ann Joslin Williams. Yes, twenty-eight-year-old Mary Walker has lost her young husband Michael in a hiking accident, but the circumstances of her summer of grief are positively idyllic. She has come to live in the house where she grew up in New Hampshire, a mountain retreat so secluded she has to drive up and over sheer granite ledges to get there. She doesn’t need to find a job anytime soon, and she enjoys a nearly constant interchange of affectionate camaraderie with the youthful, musically talented, sexually available staff of a nearby resort lodge. As if all that weren’t enough, Mary becomes the object of a brilliant (yet troubled) local boy’s selfless ardor. In the rare moments when she’s alone and lonely, all Mary has to do is look up to the eaves of her roof, where young Tobin will be sitting and kicking his feet, just waiting for her to notice him. And he does chores around the house.
Sometimes books fail at their apparent object—to explore grief, for example—while succeeding at another. Adolescence—with its conflicting desires, its painful flashes of self-awareness, and delusions of immortality—may be the true subject of this novel. In a prelude, we’re told the story of a girl who mysteriously vanishes after her male companion dies of exposure on Cascom Mountain. These events take place during the summer when Mary, then seventeen, worked at the lodge. Since that time, the missing girl has become legendary. “Ghost girl,” as she is known, is a classic Peter-Pan figure: a child who doesn’t die and yet never has to grow up. By contrast, sixteen-year-old Callie, who works at the lodge during the summer Mary loses Michael, takes tenuous steps toward adulthood. We first meet Callie when she’s swimming in the pond at night with other lodge staff, and we are privy to her reflections about helping to carry Michael’s body down from the mountain that afternoon. Callie is “sad for that lady”—Mary—but happy about the amorous advances of her crew boss, Spencer. Later that same night, Callie loses her virginity to Spencer. In the coming weeks, she continues to have sex with Spencer even though she has developed a huge crush on Ben, the fire watchman. Mary also has her eye on Ben.
Many parallels exist between Callie and Mary’s summertime experiences. If Mary’s reflections on widowhood can seem as perfunctory as Callie’s “sad for that lady,” Mary’s attraction to Ben has a satisfying visceral quality. Whether she’s climbing the mountain to see him or wordlessly acknowledging Tobin when he catches her skinny dipping in a creek, Mary comes alive when her libido is unleashed.
The creek scene showcases Williams’ ability to unify her heroine’s past and present experiences, along with her future hopes, in a sensuous emotionally charged present. It begins with Mary nostalgically recalling girlhood trips to the same swimming hole with her parents. Realizing that Michael has died before she could bring him to the creek, she succumbs to grief: “The frozen water beat against her chest and spooled around her neck. A sob came unexpectedly from deep in her throat, and then more, and she let them come, let herself cry hard and loose and horribly.”
Here, the author’s quiet lyricism functions as a kind of ballast, holding our attention as we move through a series of rapid mood and tonal changes. Almost as soon as she gets out of the water, Mary begins thinking about the advantages of her new freedom. Now that she’s single again, she can do whatever she wants. She could even have a baby! She then becomes aware of Tobin watching her: “Perhaps it was the sun, so warm, like a covering on her skin that made her only mildly uncomfortable with her nudity. And the rock, so smooth, holding her in its slight curve and basin. Or it might have been Tobin’s lack of expression—a composed observer—that made the moment more a curiosity than shock.”
We see Tobin through the eyes of Mary, Callie, and others; but we get to know him best in chapters written from his point of view. Like Mary, Tobin grew up on Cascom Mountain. At sixteen, he’s a socially awkward loner who exhibits symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His “tall, dark, cruel” mentally ill mother, now institutionalized, has subjected him to treatment ranging from capricious to life -threatening. When he was little, she pushed him off a roof—no wonder he’s terrified of her! Sadly, Tobin’s father, an amateur painter, is more interested in having his wife return home so he can use her for a model than in raising his son. Before summer’s end, Dad succeeds in bringing Mom back, and Tobin’s response to her homecoming sets in motion the most dramatic action this novel has to offer. Everybody at the lodge, Mary included, mobilizes to prevent new untimely deaths—due to suicide and/or fire—from occurring.
And then summer’s over.