The novel is a family saga, following the Vaughn family of Massachusetts Swift River Valley from the turn of the 20th century until just before the onset of World War II. The family history is indeed compelling: the brothers John & Eli who almost enact a sort of Jacob & Esau story, but with the twist that in this case, neither wins the inheritance; their cousin Alonzo who clings to a doomed way of life & an obsessive love; & Eli’s high-spirited daughter Jenny, whose coming of age is a central focus.
But as much as Beside the Still Waters is a saga about a family, it’s also a saga about Massachusetts—about its Puritan past, on thru its wars with Native Americans & its own brief, late 18th century civil war, the Shays Rebellion; in fact this latter conflict, which pitted the farmers of western & central Massachusetts against the new state government & urban merchants, looms large as a backdrop to the novel’s own story.
That story involves the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir, which was completed in 1939. The Quabbin Reservoir is the largest inland body of water in Massachusetts, & is the primary water source for the city of Boston & much of the Boston metropolitan area. The Reservoir was one of the many large-scale public works of the 1930s, & an impressive undertaking from an engineering viewpoint. Its creation, however, caused the “discontiuation” (to use Wikipedia’s word) of four towns: Dana, Enfield, Greenwich & Prescott, all agricultural communities & all firmly ensconced in a 19th century world even as Massachusetts’ urban centers moved into the 20th century, with its electrification, cash economy, immigration & automobiles.
Beside the Still Waters then is also a fable about culture & its mutability. Early in the narrative, we read about a Native American who would make an annual pilgrimage to the Greenwich Cemetery:
The old man would come one day in the spring, and just sit there in the cemetery all day long, still and quiet, until the sun had set behind the Prescott ridge. Then he would leave, to return the next spring. This last was nearly twenty years ago. The old Indian was probably dead now…. “He gave me the shivers,” Sam had said, rubbing his hands together, “like he was saying, my people are gone. We thought we would be here forever, but now we are gone. So, don’t be too sure of yourselves, you can go this way too.”
We recall this anecdote later in the story as the old cemeteries of the four doomed towns are moved—bodies exhumed, markers uprooted—so that the human remains won’t contaminate the water. In the end, there are only ghosts:
Even fifty years later rumors would pervade to the effect that if one looked deep into the clear water of the reservoir during a period of drought when the water level was low, one could see whole houses standing there like bitter ghosts. It was not true. Only the ghosts were there.
The characters of Beside the Still Waters are indeed haunted: Eli Vaughn is haunted by the land of the Swift River Valley, specifically, his father’s Prescott farm, which he’s doomed never to inherit—even by the orchard he could never plant. That land also haunts his older brother who forsook his inheritance for urban life & a “fast” lifestyle, but who is inexorably drawn back to a landscape he can only possess thru the mediation of a camera lens. & the Prescott farm haunts Alonzo Vaughn, Eli’s cousin, who inherits it by default & whose bound to the land eventually becomes an obsessive & destructive bondage. He refuses to relinquish the farm (which, ironically, is not legally his) to the State, & continues to live there as a hermit as all the other residents inevitably sell out; in the course of this, the farm itself goes to ruin. Late in the novel, a kindly old doctor tries to make Alonzo see reason:
You’re doing terrible things to y’self, son. You’re going to be living here like an old ghost in a graveyard soon....” “The graveyards,” Alonzo said with a sneer, “are empty.”
Against the backdrop of this haunted generation, we have the character of Jenny Vaughn, who we watch from childhood thru early adulthood. She has “promise”—she is strong, both physically & mentally, intelligent & grows into an attractive young woman. The men of the older generation “read into” her—John Vaughn sees Jenny’s promise as a reflection of his own, which he threw away for drink; Eli sees Jenny’s willfulness not as a mirror of his own, but as a headstrong rejection of the heritage he holds so dear—her ambition to attend college seems selfish; & Alonzo sees her as a potential fantasy wife who will share his own fictionalized life in a world that no longer exists.
Beside the Still Waters is a great read: Ms Lynch has a thorough grasp of the historical back story, & the novel provides a fascinating narrative of the Quabbin Reservoir project. Ms Lynch also has a firm grasp of the New England landscape, both historical & natural—her descriptions of the fields & woodlands & towns are vivid & true. Consider this:
In every New England town it seems there is a hill, even if only metaphorically. At
the top of this hill, there is a plain, white Congregational church. Pristine and quiet,
painted and photographed, emblazoned upon Christmas cards and revered in the hearts of even New England Catholics, this architecture stands for New England the way cranberries and autumn foliage does. It has become a symbol. The gospel according to Currier and Ives.
Lynch’s observation about the church is not only accurate in the most real sense, but also opens up the idea of symbolic landscape, which is so important to the narrative—how the landscape provides meaning, how it gives life & how it potentially can destroy us.
You can find out more about Jacqueline T Lynch on her website, or on any of her fine blogs: Another Old Move Blog, New England Travels, & Tragedy & Comedy in New England. You can also read Jacqueline T Lynch’s entertaining Writers Talk interview right here on Robert Frost’s Banjo.
Lovers of historical fiction, of New England, or of just good writing will enjoy Beside the Still Waters. Lynch's style is clear & assured & highly readable; her background as a playwright certainly comes across in her facility with dialogue, & as I've mentioned, her descriptive skills & characterizations are strong. I recommend it!