Throughout most of his life, Vincent Van Gogh communicated through letters with his beloved brother Theo. But there is no correspondence known today to tell us about one particular year of the artist's early adulthood. In her novel "The Season of Migration," Nellie Hermann gives readers a fictionalized — but plausible — version of the tantalizing 10-month gap.
When he arrives in the Belgian mining village of Petit Wasmes in December 1878, Van Gogh finds himself in a world where the landscape is all black and shades of gray. Even the snow turns dark with soot soon after falling. But little is black-and-white about Van Gogh's state of mind, sense of direction, or qualifications for ministering to hardscrabble miners. Self-doubt shadows him, and is made darker in contrast with his flashes of artistic and religious insight and bolts of incipient madness.
Gazing at the black pyramids of coal and slag and a "squat, evil-looking" mine, Van Gogh declares, "This was no painting, Theo; I had stepped into one of God's own masterpieces."
Recorded in letters that Van Gogh writes but never mails, this epiphany and others reveal how the aspiring minister gleans some spiritual truths, thanks to his artistic eye. The trouble is, the very artistic openness that allows Van Gogh to see "God's masterpiece" in a "beast" of a mine leaves him vulnerable to madness and failure.
Author Hermann shows Van Gogh's descent into the belly of that beast — as he determinedly follows miners into their underground world to understand them better — as both a formative and shattering turning point. He gains a keen desire to share the plight of his flock, leaves the comfort of his lodgings and takes up life in a shack where he increasingly loses control. Nevertheless, he continues his unsent letters to Theo, documenting his awkward love for Angeline DuBois, his awe for a man whom the mine cannot kill, a devastating tragedy and his desperation over what he perceives as Theo's misunderstanding of him.
Like a painter, Hermann seems to know that the secret to adding dimension lies in keeping the vanishing point in view instead of getting lost in the subject. In "The Season of Migration" she assumes Van Gogh's voice and point of view so vividly that readers want to believe that she has captured the painter's actual experience.
Rosemary Herbert is a longtime literary critic and the author of "Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery."