“I wanted to write a novel about America,” Anna Quindlen says of the inspiration for her latest, Miller’s Valley. “Big things happen in this country and then we promptly forget about them. America papers things over and then starts over again anew. That’s very exciting and allows for reinvention, but we forget our history."
What is at risk of being papered over in Miller’s Valley is the title’s namesake: a rural town in Pennsylvania where narrator Mimi Miller’s family has lived for generations.
The novel opens in the 1960s as the government makes plans to divert the river and turn low-lying Miller’s Valley into a reservoir. At first, valley residents are adamant in their refusal to accept the government’s buyouts and participate in their valley’s disappearance. The buyouts mean certain death to the only way of life most of their families have known for generations. But as years pass and the valley suffers flood after flood and the threat of an eminent domain takeover looms, the buyouts begin to look less like death sentences and more like life rafts. One by one, valley residents sell.
“It covers everything,” Quindlen says about why she chose water to represent America’s serial amnesia. “It’s as if the past doesn’t exist.”
Quindlen had little idea when she began Miller’s Valley how many submerged cities—drowned towns, they’re called—actually exist in the U.S. Utah, Washington, Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Oregon, Colorado, New York—name a state and chances are it has at least one.
Drowned towns: a term-of-art that is as poetic and matter-of-fact as Miller’s Valley and its winning narrator. We meet Mimi as a dutiful 11-year-old living the coarse and unadorned life of a mid-century farm daughter. She sells corn by the side of the road, eavesdrops on her parents’ conversations through the heating vent in her bedroom, delivers dinner to her shut-in aunt Ruth, hands over her corn profits to her charismatic, aimless older brother Tommy who promises to pay her back but never does. Mimi is compliant, mannered, and without a trace of vanity or self-importance—ironic given that her name is pronounced “Mee-Mee.” Her company is refreshing in the age of iEverything.
We witness Mimi’s maturation, her gradual disillusionment with her family, and the series of losses that define her adolescence: aunt Ruth to her reclusiveness, whose vice grip becomes only more white-knuckled with age; her father to a stroke that leaves him unable to communicate or care for himself; and Tommy to the Marine Corps and then the Vietnam War, the horrors of which he never recovers from.
“I have a strong affinity for Tommy, and a deep sadness,” Quindlen says. She calls him “one of the lost boys of the 60s and 70s,” referring to the Vietnam veterans America promptly abandoned.
The losses in Mimi’s life are counteracted by her discoveries: of work, love, sex, science, her own intellect. She marches steadfastly into the future, one that is made possible for her by the burgeoning women’s movement.
“Changes loom large in this novel for American women,” Quindlen says. “Mimi has certain expectations and aspirations when she is a girl because of the restrictions on her. Thanks to the women’s movement, she is able to dodge those restrictions.”
Like Mimi, Quindlen herself was a “conspicuous beneficiary of the women’s movement,” something she says she was always keenly aware of. After her mother died when she was 19, Quindlen assumed her role, caring for her four younger siblings before she left home for New York City’s Barnard College. From there, she took advantage of the doors that were opening for women in the 1970s and carved out for herself a successful writing career, first as a reporter and columnist (she won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1992 for her work at the New York Times) and then as a bestselling novelist.
Mimi’s trajectory is similar to Quindlen’s. Mimi alters her college plans to care for her father until, thanks to an encouraging teacher and scholarship money, she finally leaves Miller’s Valley for the University of Pennsylvania. She becomes first a doctor and later, a wife and mother. “So much of Mimi’s success was right place, right time,” Quindlen says, just as hers was. “She is triumphant. I love the idea of her taking that leap, which came upon her so unexpectedly.”
Reading about real-life drowned towns, Quindlen discovered photos of sunken cities whose infrastructure—steeples, roofs—broke the water’s surface during dry spells. This eerie imagery underscores Quindlen’s message that we cannot completely paper over history and is an apt metaphor for Mimi’s eventual return, decades later, to Miller’s Valley. Though she is a completely different person and the valley is a completely different place, the events, people, and artifacts of her childhood still lurk. As Quindlen says: “No matter how you change and grow and prosper, the past lives inside you.”
Lauren Lavelle is a writer based in New York City