William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, has written his third novel, a pastoral-romantic-political fiction that does much to disprove the notion that politicians are good only at serving special interests and furthering their own careers.
Set in the Swift River valley of western Massachusetts in the late Depression years, Stillwater describes, through the eyes of its 15-year-old narrator, Jamieson Kooby, the impact on the valley of the perfidious schemes of “the Boston boys,” the state’s power structure, to inundate five towns by damming the Swift River. Along the way Jamieson is party to a series of Huck-and-Tom adventures with his best friend Caleb and falls in love with Hannah Corkey, whose clairvoyance flows from numerous previous lives including, inter alia, that of a Salem witch burned in 1692 and a number of years spent as an 18th-century Indian captive.
Much of the book is an episodic fabric of interwoven themes: the contest between the guilelessness of nature and the exigencies of “progress”; the integrity of village life versus the villainy of urban power politics; the rigid morality of orthodox religion (represented by Preacher Moncrieff) set against the humanism of Jamieson’s warm-hearted, salty, Nietzsche-reading Grandma Hardiman (whose credo is “worldly pleasure is sacred”); and the virtue of those like the hobo Hammy contrasted with the unscrupulous Curley and his local henchman, Lawyer Kincaid.
Within this tapestry are woven scenes of druid ceremonies in Thayer’s Wood in the middle of Midsummer night, the lingering revolutionary spirit of Captain Daniel Shays, hero of the Revolution and leader of the first rebellion against the post-Revolutionary order, the skullduggery concealed behind the scarlet curtains of Miss Millie Tiverton’s fancy house, and more ghosts, spirits, and skeletons than you could find in a corrupt politician’s closet.
As Governor Curley’s army of “Woodpeckers”—advance men for bulldozers, hydraulic engineers, and dam builders—invades the valley, the mystery of the compliant town fathers’ silence in the face of the loss of their ancestral homes deepens. Could it be that Curley’s corrupting money has come to the valley even ahead of the Woodpeckers? “Why did there have to be the money?” whines Timmy, a co-conspirator in Hammy the hobo’s demise. The voice of modern political realism, Lawyer Kincaid, replies, “Money is the oxygen of public decisions, son.”
Happily, Weld, now a resident of New York, does not now have to account to his more upright constituents for giving a madam and a hobo heroic roles in divulging the plot by political and community leaders to corrupt the Swift River valley, or for making paganism altogether more attractive than the established church. One imagines him sending a message to the retiring Jesse Helms to the effect that writing well is the best revenge. If so, one hopes for Governor Weld’s, and the Republic’s, sake this novel sells a million copies.
Stillwater may or may not be a metaphor for recent American politics. There will certainly be those of us who think so. Writing with the authority of one who knows from rich experience, Weld provides a moral for his own novel and perhaps his public service. “America has both gentle and heartless in it,” an aging Jamieson Kooby reflects on visiting the lake that inundated his town and a vanished way of life. “You can live a wonderful life in the gentle part of America, which is most of it, but if the heartless part notices you, it will come kill you off and the place you live.”
Gary Hart, a former United States Senator, is the author of 12 books. His most recent, Restoration of the Republic, will be published in the spring of 2002.