The first novel in years from the author of "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" is unusual and oddly unsatisfying.
Serious political anarchists have long endured the following critique from their more change-the-system-from-within co-revolutionaries: I understand what you're against -- the government, corporations, coordinated global finance -- but what are you for? Likewise, novelist Carolyn Chute, who espouses and practices much the same anti-government populism as do her fictional characters, raises the question: You've created a dense, unusual novel, overflowing with colorful characters in highly charged situations, but what's your point?
For although "The School on Heart's Content Road" is creatively constructed and peopled by sensitive, memorable characters, ultimately this outsider's chronicle of off-the-grid life never amounts to a compelling story. And ironically, considering Chute's political bent, the book fails to satisfactorily connect the dots between the novel's triad of rural poverty, uptight militias and free-thinking communards. What's left is a crockpot's worth of tantalizing home-grown ingredients that don't blend into much of a stew.
The novel is set in Chute's back yard of Maine and told from varying perspectives (including a TV set and a crow), each with its own graphic icon. Initially, this technique is very jarring and Chute keeps directing the reader to a helpful character list at the back of the book. Eventually, though, the style settles in and four main characters emerge: Gordon St. Onge, the charismatic leader of the Settlement commune; Rex York, a quiet and determined Vietnam vet and head of the Border Mountain Militia; Mickey Gammon, a homeless 15-year-old ripe for both Rex's indoctrination and Gordon's welcoming hearth, and Jane Meserve, a precocious 6-year-old whose mother's drug-war imprisonment allows Gordon to foster the child and moral indignation all at once.
At first, Gordon and Rex represent two separate ideologies in reaction to the equally hated state of things: Rex and his militiamen are stockpiling arms and having meetings; Gordon and his many wives and followers are growing their own food and tinkering with wind power. Chute soon reveals that the two are old friends and they forge an uneasy alliance. When the press gets wind of the militia/Settlement hookup, hysterical fear-mongering about "crazies in the woods with guns" leads to increased government surveillance -- as well as to an upswing in interest from hundreds of other disenfranchised citizens. But once these elements are in play, Chute never ties them to a climactic build.
Chute herself, who had a bestseller in the mid-'80s with her chronicle of rural poverty, "The Beans of Egypt, Maine," is probably more interesting than the characters she creates. The "True Maine Militia" of her latest novel is based on her own group, and she and her husband are rustic oddballs. But to Chute's great credit, "The School on Heart's Content Road" is nowhere near a polemic; her heavily nuanced characters depict a movement based more on a personality cult than a logical agenda. The book is reportedly part of a planned five-part series; perhaps later editions will employ stronger storytelling. But as a stand-alone novel, "The School on Heart's Content Road" is as confounding as one of Gordon St. Onge's rambling diatribes.
Cherie Parker, a former Minnesotan, blogs at thelitlife.com.