An amiable if long-winded coming-of-ager set amid the quiet turmoil of 1960s rural Michigan.
Appleton is too far from New England to invite comparisons to Norman Rockwell, but it brings Andrew Wyeth to mind: Bleak, open countryside alternating with sparsely settled towns full of weather-beaten Dutch Reformed churches. Martin Dijksterhuis grew up in Appleton, on the orchard that had been in his family for generations, but he’s the son of an unusual household. His intellectual mother (a University of Chicago grad) speaks Latin and French with her son at home and drives him 40 miles to see The Fountainhead and the other highbrow movies that never make it to the hinterlands. Martin is an apt pupil but not sure he wants to follow his mother’s footsteps. For one thing, he’s in love with Cory Williams, the black daughter of the orchard foreman, and in the summer before his freshman year at the University of Chicago he discovers that Cory is pregnant. He wants to marry her and start a family, but she and her family suddenly leave town—and Martin finds out that his father paid them to go. He gives up on college, joins the Navy, later takes a job with the railroad in an attempt to forget her. The one thing that sustains him is his love of blues guitar, and he spends all his spare time tracking down old musicians and looking up arrangements of their work. He compiles an anthology of the music but lacks the confidence to go on stage himself. When he finally gets some advice from a preacher/bluesman about trusting in his own abilities, he faces up to his desire to be both a musician and a father.
Well-wrought but painfully heartfelt: Hellenga’s (The Fall of a Sparrow, 1998, etc.) story creeps at a snail’s pace to a conclusion obvious to most readers long before.