WONDERMONGER by Michael Rothschild


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Rothschild's second collection (Rhapsody of the Heart, 1973) consists of ten stories inadvertently making us aware that sometimes a little dash and carelessness are as important as painstaking craft and deliberate plotting. Most of the pieces, including the title story, are set in the countryside--a countryside that is isolated and harsh in climate. The wilderness is close by, a New England wilderness that Rothschild evokes in frequent echoes of Hawthorne. Men and women, with names like Proper Keep, Mordecai Rime, and Midwife Cawkins, are acutely sensitive to the perceived evil of others--but in their zeal to foster virtue and civilization (""The Price of Pine"" and ""How the Oval Hill Wajosis become Starkmont,"") they corrupt the innocent and destroy the pristine. In ""Wondermonger,"" Mordecai Rime, a logger of the north woods renowned for his debauchery and woodcraft, falls in love with a gentle schoolteacher whom he marries, leaves pregnant over the winter while he goes logging, and ultimately destroys with his unfounded jealousy and suspicions. The central characters of ""The Austringer"" and ""The Dog in the Manger"" try to train a bird and dogs respectively, but fail in this as well as in their understanding of themselves and those closest to them. Violence is always close--dogs tree a bear (""The Strike Hound""); a snake devours a pet toad (""The Toad""); and pregnancies end in death or madness. Often it seems that instead of being life-affirming, birth is a terrible, mutilating process--and Rothschild spares no details in his graphic accounts of childbirth in several stories. All is rotten: a worm in every rose, a countryside exuding a malevolence that makes the inner city almost Eden. Rothschild works carefully to set his scene, establish his themes, and describe his characters, but it is all very ponderous--every phrase honed, every word well-chosen, and each theme profound, makes for numbing reading.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1990
Publisher: Viking