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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book Review: HARD CIDER

Barbara Stark-Nemon’s new book, Hard Cider, is quite different from her debut novel, Even in Darkness. Both novels present characters based on members of the author’s family, and Hard Cider will undoubtedly hold readers’ attention, as did Even in Darkness, from start to finish, but the differences are at least as numerous as the similarities. The earlier novel was set in the 20th century. The new work, its story unfolding in the present, is much closer to home.
Most of the action in Hard Cider, except for a brief New England section, takes place in Michigan, primarily in Leelanau County around Northport. The new novel is closer to home in a figurative sense, as well, with much of the material coming from the author’s personal experience. Marriage, family, heartache, and dreams. When you get beneath the surface, none of it is as simple as it first appears.

Abbie Rose Stone, first-person narrator, retired from a dual career in teaching and speech therapy, dreams of launching a commercial hard cider business from the family vacation home outside Northport. Locals, summer people, and repeat visitors to the area will recognize many familiar village and township scenes. Knitters, quilters, and craftspeople will be especially charmed to find their favorite Northport shop, Dolls and More, prominently featured, proprietor Sally appearing under her own name. Other names have been changed, and a few characters may be imaginary. Nevertheless, the novel’s locale and cast will be presently vividly to any reader’s mind, including those readers who have never set foot in northern Michigan. As for readers who know the territory — well, if I were far from home — say, in Paris — reading Hard Cider, I would be transported to northern Michigan.

Sally at her shop, Dolls and More, with beautiful yarn
Retirement and an unexpected inheritance have given Abbie Rose Stone an enviable freedom. While her husband’s law career still keeps him tied closely to Ann Arbor, Abbie Rose spends as much time as possible in Northport — its beaches, woodsy trails, and orchards (apples, though, not cherries). Her children grown, she’s ready to make her next dream come true.
Whenever I could, I haunted Charlie Aiken’s orchard — first in May, when the young trees burst into blossom, their sweet scent drawing bees to pollinate, and then as fruit set and the schedule of spraying and fertilizing marched into June and July. I helped out frequently, especially on a day after a vicious thunderstorm damaged orchards in a swath across the whole peninsula. The youth of the trees and ou solid spring pruning kept the danger to a minimum, but Charles, James, and I spent a whole day trimming and clearing. 
But Abbie Rose loves the Leelanau peninsula in all its seasons, even savage winter.
The lake no longer pounded out rhythms to the falling snow, and the softened fields, laced tree branches, and muffled sounds combined to create a winter wonderland that never failed to thrill me. No snowbird behavior for me; I loved northern Michigan in the winter precisely for its harsh beauty and isolation. Short days and long nights brought me inward, forcing a welcome shift to indoor work with my hands....
Winter orchard
Parents' worries do not end when children grow up and leave home, however, and her sons still give Abbie Rose cause for concern, especially Alex, the boy whose growing-up years were the most difficult. Whenever she hears his voice on the phone, Abbie’s heart gives a lurch. She can’t help wishing to have this son living nearby again, pursuing his own physician assistant career, of course, but also serving as consultant to her cider business. Steven, her husband, given his already strong reservations about Abbie’s dream project, is even more dubious about his son becoming involved, i.e., “dragged into it.” This, then, is the Stone family. Close, loving, happy, and successful, but with undercurrents of tension and worry. 

The novel opens with a scene from the family past: the Stones return from vacation, the youngest child only a babe in arms, to find their Ann Arbor home burned to the ground, the work of an arsonist, everything in it lost. Other significant pieces of the past emerge gradually, in bits and pieces. Happy families are not all the same. Each family has its particular complicated history, and this is certainly true for the Stones. 

Neither do all complications lie in the past. Like so many downstaters who come to know Leelanau as their vacation “happy place,” Abbie Rose comes to Northport for peace and quiet, for a chance to unleash her creativity but also to “get away from it all.” While Steven is in Ann Arbor and the boys off leading their own lives, she cherishes her winter lakeshore solitude. Who, then, is this young woman appearing one day on the road? Where did she come from, and what is she doing here? Abbie is curious but can’t help feeling a bit irritated, too, by the stranger’s presence.

Antique apples at John and Phyllis Kilcherman's farm
Hard Cider steers clear of murder but provides plenty of mystery. Moreover, since this is not a formula genre novel, “solving” the mystery does not end the questions to be faced by the book’s sympathetic cast of characters. Instead, as life throws them curve balls, old decisions have a long reach, as new knowledge makes new demands on Abbie and her family, challenges we realize will continue long after the novel’s final page.

If you’re like me, you read a variety of books for a variety of reasons: to learn about the world or to escape it; to find characters like yourself and/or  unlike yourself; to stimulate your mind, calm your soul, challenge your preconceptions, and/or calm your fears; to immerse yourself in a place or to take you far from where you are. Barbara Stark-Nemon’s new novel will satisfy booklovers’ needs and desires in these and other directions, I’m sure, depending on individual starting points. 

Besides, don’t you love being Up North? Or wish you were? Or wonder what it’s like? There’s that delight, too.

Looking toward Lake Michigan


Deborah said...

I DO wish to be up north! And I'm anxious to read Barbara's new book too.

Dawn said...

Yes, I often wish I were up north, just about where your photo 'Looking toward Lake Michigan" is. Looks like a good book. I'll email you.