Saturday, May 23, 2015

Marshall Terry, Tom Northway


Opening Passage:

When he awoke, a miraculous new dawn was just beginning to come up over the glazed white land and play and dance at his uncurtained window.He lay very still, for a long moment savoring the light, feeling through him the wonder of it. Once asleep, he had slept long and hard. Overslept, like an old fool.

Summary: Tom Northway, living alone on his Ohio farm with his dogs and with the help of his Amish neighbors, wakes up on his ninetieth birthday. It will be an eventful day, and the reader follows him through it. A worry throughout is that his son Ben is coming; Tom expects that Ben will find some way to force him off the farm where he has lived so much of his life.

There is not much story to pack into such a short time, and although almost the whole book is Tom reminiscing about his life, we don't really get a complete sense of that story, either. But the book, as the title might suggest, excels at character study, and that is perhaps the best way of thinking about the story. The Kirkus review for the book was surprisingly critical when it came out:

Marshall Terry (Old Liberty -- 1961) sets down in a low key, with consistency and constancy that does not reach for effects, a simple, modest life. One is left with the sense that perhaps it has been a little too simple to hold the reader's attentiveness.

I'm not sure that this is quite so, although it's easy enough to see why the reviewer might say this. The primary difficulty with the book is that it in some ways is very much like being stuck in a room with a voluble ninety-year-old rambling about his life for 186 pages. But I think this is an analogy that also shows the other side. Such a ramble is not uninteresting in itself; the difficulty with it is that it never quite gets to the point of explicitly binding it all together in a tight bundle -- the linking idea that, on being seen, would suddenly make it obvious that the associations between these different stories are rational is never quite stated, or the key event that would organize everything else into a meaningful whole is never quite reached. It's in trying to capture the whole that we are lost. The details may nonetheless be quite interesting -- and, again, there often is a real logic to the whole thing, that just needs to be sussed out by patience and thought. Tom Northway is an engaging enough character in his own right, and the book, while perhaps a little long for what it is doing, is nonetheless not interminable. You're really just sitting down to get to know Tom; and getting to know someone is not too simple to hold your attention -- it's a considerable part of what your attention seems to exist for in the first place. But it also takes an interest in getting to know Tom in the first place, and a little work and endurance actually to get to know him.

Favorite Passage:

He put a new sheet in the Oliver and began a letter to Ben.

Dear Ben,
You are a damn fool.

He looked at that. Then he wrote:

I love you very much.
Your father,
Thomas Northway (p. 160)

Recommendation: It takes a taste for characters over story, but it was enjoyable, and can be recommended for those who have it.


Quotations are from Marshall Terry, Tom Northway, Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc. (New York: 1968).

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