This is a lovely and heart stirring novel which addresses issues around race, class, and war.
A note on spoilers – there are quotes in this review which may be considered as spoilers for some. However, the main story line and its drama are not disclosed.
Rainy Lake is a coming of age novel set during the 1960’s and the early 70’s, with the author giving some insight into the time around the Vietnam war. Many families vacationed on and around this summer resort lake, called Rainy Lake, near New York. The novel’s main character is Danny, and her family purchases a summer home near the lake. She, her architect dad, artist mom, and her older brother spend their summers enjoying its water, private activities, and social life. But events are brewing.
As the family experiences the lake as upper middle class whites, with its algae green veneer, we begin to see Rainy lake in contrast to another parallel lake, appropriately called Disappointment. This is a place where the lower class locals and person’s of color live. Here, Danny and her friends give us insight into their feelings around the race and class differences apparent in the area, and their feelings while visiting the “other” lake.
The houses themselves were small and patchy, a few nothing more than shacks. We knew some of the kids who lived along there – Trish Foster and her brother Dale, the Goethalls twins – poor white families whose parents worked in the cement plant near Sparta or in the many diners and vegetable stands scattered along the highway. Through the trees I could see a sparkle of lake beyond the piles of stacked firewood, discarded appliances, and the carcasses of cars mounted on concrete blocks.
“What a bunch of slobs,” Terese said, pointing to one house.
The novel occurs during a time when racism and its associated difficulties are apparent. We can see the main character’s thoughts about the situation in a continuation of the above quote, where Danny questions her feelings about race and contrasts them to those of her friends and original sin:
Was it like this for me? Did my feelings for Billy give me an innocence other white people lacked? I can’t answer even now. Maybe the truth is that way down deep in each one of us there is a stain as stubborn as original sin that makes it impossible to look at kids like Billy except through a window of colored glass. Me believing I was totally colorblind, Terese and Carline so governed by color they couldn’t see anything else.
With the Vietnam war looming in the atmosphere and in the character’s minds and psyches, there was an internal and philosophical conflict which is a key part of the story. Here we see the war through the eyes of Danny’s brother Bryan, who was strongly against the war:
Bryan turned on the TV. He couldn’t get through the day without tallying up the latest casualty figures and worrying over the new “search and destroy” missions that were supposed to kill as many Vietcong as possible. From what we could see on the news, it looked like whole families were getting killed. Already there were over half a million refuges, peasants who had no where to go.
“Here we are, going to the fireworks when just this week Johnson sent bombers over Hanoi. It just doesn’t seem right.” he said.
While reading I experienced the emotions, listened to the conversations, and smelled the water and warm salty French fries. It felt like a special place with its fishing and family parties, yet there were contrasting ingrained beliefs about what the world is - an important glimpse of how things were 40-50 years ago.
As Danny’s character develops and grows from a skinny awkward child into a young adult and later into her early twenties, her perspective and experiences are shown through the lovely, often sparse, and sometimes unusual language which the author uses. All of which cut to my soul. Here are the two most significant quotes from the novel, both involving her awareness and race:
It would have been natural then to talk about me being white and Billy mixed, but we didn’t. I’d inherited the problem faced by most adults who can’t easily talk about race, not when one’s white and the other isn’t. White liberals get the words stuck in our throats, as if to say them – black, Negro – will betray something bad about us. We’ll say them the wrong way maybe, exposing our ignorance, or we’ll say too much, pretending to know things we can’t possibly know. So we skirt the issue entirely, pretending it doesn’t exist. For me it didn’t….
and the most powerful:
“I am not sure I understand what’s happening with Billy.”
“What do you want to know?”
I hesitated. “He talks a lot about being black or white. I keep thinking he’s trying to tell me something but I’m not sure what it is. I just don’t think that way about Billy.”
“About what color he is.”
“Maybe he wants you to think about it.”
She lay her hands out flat on the oak table and studied them; her fingers were long and tapered like Billy’s. “ Being white you don’t have to think about it. That’s a privilege most white folks don’t understand. Billy doesn’t have a choice. I think he wants you to see that.”
I’m obviously a fan of this book and I loved it on many different levels. Highly recommended for anyone who would like a journey into the 1960’s and early 1970’s from the perspective of a young white girl as she is coming of age amid all the complexities from the time. We have blatant racism, the ill-fated war in Vietnam and, of course, the natural flow of becoming mature, falling in love, the inescapable nature of life itself and its loss. This is 4.5 stars in my eyes.
Thank you to Missy from Missy’s Book Nook for the copy of this book.
For a link - click to purchase Rainy Lake at Graywolf Press, as well as to see discussion questions around the novel, an excerpt, as well as an author interview. Also, look out for the logo. It’s a group of wolves which move around on the right top corner of the page; link there if only to see them.
Spotlight Series hosts tours featuring the reviews of books printed by small and independent presses. This issue is supporting Graywolf Press, the publisher of Rainy Lake.
If you would like to participate or to read other reviews for more books, link to the challenge site and the direct post listing the other participants via the badge on the right. If their book choices are as wonderful as mine turned out to be, this should be a treasure trove for any reader interested in literary fiction.
This book will also be included in the challenges – War Across the Generations, New Author Challenge, as well as Women Unbound.