Willard, a poet, essayist, and well-known children's author, floats her second novel for adults (Things Invisible to See, 1985) down a stream that is both real and only imagined, a place where water can sustain you—or let you sink like a stone. Jessie Woolman grew up in Drowning Bear, Wisconsin, and settled in Ann Arbor to marry Henry—a man who owned a museum of natural artifacts, gemstones, fossils, and an indoor stream where fish could swim into view and then vanish, hidden by the floor. Henry is gone now. The museum is gathering dust. And Jessie's two daughters, Martha and Ellen, wonder how best to care for their aging mother, whose memory works like those museum fish—there one minute, gone the next. Martha is inclined toward accepting the offer of local businessman Harvey Mack, who wants to buy the museum property for a tidy sum and develop a shopping mall. Ellen, still recovering from her own husband's recent death, just wants to hang on. Enter Sam Theopolis, a waiter and unlikely savior with a red ponytail. Sam moves in to help care for Jessie and soon has plans to reopen the museum. It all seems too good to be true and, naturally, it is. Sam is taken to jail, charged with an unthinkable crime. Ellen is desolate. Jessie grows further confused. All seems lost—until the truth prevails, clear as water. Willard does for her Michigan setting what Alice Hoffman did for Florida in Turtle Moon, making the natural world loom larger—and more magical—than life. Every toad in the rushes has a secret. Any fossil might bear the footprint of a ghost. At times, too many symbols and portents distract from the story, but, ultimately, Willard's good-hearted, quirky characters win the show. Life and death, water and wings—what Willard conjures nicely here is a tale about family survival, the riskiest kind of magic.
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