Australian writer Jones (Julia Paradise, 1987) wades into the murky past, recruits three historical figures as his protagonists, and returns with a mottled, half-throttled view of malaise and mystery in the Great Northern Woods of Wisconsin. In 1892, an odd (and entirely fictional) convergence of forces brings photographer Charles Van Schaick, his half-breed assistant Billy Sunday, and young historian Frederick Jackson Turner, soon- to-be-author of the frontier theory of American history, together in the lakeside village of Balsam Point for the summer. The town, kept alive by summer trade and nearby logging, retains a shadow of its earlier frontier character, with a few diseased Indians still living nearby. But something in the village casts a longer, darker shadow: As Van Schaick pursues his interests in photographing the spirits of the place, Billy has visions of a native woman in the woods and one day comes upon a rotting female corpse. Since teenage girls have been disappearing from town, never to be found, his sighting is believed even when he can't find the body again—and is accused of her murder. Billy escapes by jumping into the lake (where he finds another corpse) and soon after joins the circus. Turner, meanwhile, has been having visions, too, but they are familiar ones and are the primary reason he returns every summer to spend time fishing and daydreaming by the lake. At 16, he had a romance there (his first) with a beautiful Indian girl—an affair abruptly terminated when she became pregnant. He never saw her again but returns annually to the woods where he believes her spirit still lingers. . . . Too many disparate plot threads here to weave together tightly, and the attempt to catch America's identity crisis at the end of the century by focusing on these three men isn't persuasive. Still, the primary setting, an ancient forest in summer where pleasure and horror can almost merge, makes the presence of the past keenly felt.
Read full book review >