The Real Upstate is developing a well deserved literature all its own, and two keenly observant, lyrical wordsmiths have just released new works that capture the heroism and lunacy of New York's back country.
Ginnah Howard's Rope and Bone introduces two mothers—an art teacher and a bartender—as they meet each other for the first time in early midlife, one of those odd chance meetings that leads to unlikely friendship. It starts with a flat tire and ends with a missing child.
From there, Howard draws the lens back and shows us the beginning of each woman's journey, building a series of vignettes through pivotal moments in both lives. A free-standing prequel to two earlier novels, Rope and Bone forms part of a wide-angle meditation on family life that includes Howard's Night Navigation and Doing Time Outside, both gritty and eloquent takes on mothering in the modern world. In Rope and Bone, we get their backstories.
In the vivid, searching light that Howard sheds upon each woman's life in turn, we see the forces that pull them together and push them apart without judgment, without any oversimplified sense of angels and demons. Carla's life spins farther out of control, while Del strives to rein hers in; we come to love them both.
Howard's time-shifting Zen take on the perils and pleasures of loving rings very true. Families, friendships, catastrophes, achievements: life really is what happens when you're making other plans, and Howard excels at telling the truth about women who live on the hardscrabble edge.
Mary Higgins Clark Award winner Jenny Milchman makes splendid use of New York's wildlands, the Adirondacks, in her tight second thriller Ruin Falls. Liz Daniels is an artisanal farmer married to a college professor, white-knuckling her way through what would appear on the surface to be an idyllic life, but Milchman doesn't leave readers on the surface, any more than she lets Liz stay there.
As the story begins, they're off on a rather fraught trip to visit Paul's folks. Or so Liz believes. She's not unaware that her husband has a few control issues, but she's blindsided when he abducts their two kids. There's no divorce in progress, no custody to enforce, so the police are officially useless. Heart aching and pounding, Liz sets out to get her children back, knowing that wherever Paul has taken them can't be good.
Figuring out what's going on and finding the children, Liz must decipher the darkest chapter of her husband's distant, murky past, long before he established himself as an Authority Figure with minions and followers. It's hard work. She has, until recently, been a follower herself.
What's really going on around Wedeskyull is much bigger and darker than Liz, or the one helpful cop who becomes her staunch ally, could ever have guessed. To save her children, Liz needs to plunge into the deep woods of the 'Dacks and the dark heart of narcissism.
A chilling, believable thriller about misguided responses to modern problems—romantic dilemmas, the urge to get off the grid—and a mild-mannered woman finding her inner Mama Bear, Ruin Falls is a fresh, intense read.
—Anne Pyburn Craig