On the heels of the publication success of his first novel, Orange Rain (Trébol Press, 2014), Jan Smitowicz released the self-published Redwood Falls this past August. After reading the sample on Amazon, I immediately bought the ebook. Smitowicz begins to build suspense from the first page of this novel, and his vivid description of a groggy, late-night departure on a trip to we’re-not-sure-where evokes compelling images and a strong desire to understand the story that is unfolding. To me, the writing style departs slightly from that in his debut novel — more descriptive, more evocative, more sensual.
Redwood Falls is primarily the story of David Foster Sayers — Foster as he’s called — and his journey from timid child to bold teenager and young adult. Along the way, readers learn a lot about his family dynamics. When the book opens, he’s eight years old and living with his mother, Rita, who is artistic and overly protective. The largest of her paintings, My Drear, hangs in the family’s entryway and serves as a physical yet abstract version of the real-life shadows and mysteries that surround Foster’s childhood. Its mention at critical times at the story is a lovely device. There’s humor in a child’s attempt to make sense of the painting, and it reveals much about Foster’s mother. There’s also something ominous in its presence. Its prominent position in the home is a clear parallel to the importance of the events in its creator’s life and a darkness that lies below the surface of her doting and affection.
In some ways, readers come to understand My Drear at the same pace and at the same time Foster does. As he makes a new friend, begins developing opinions about and sensitivities to the natural world and its destruction — fresh, new growth from a formative seed planted in him by his mother to serve her ulterior motives — and pushes for more independence, his mother overreacts and can barely cope. Her need for control soon trumps everything and culminates in a violent separation from Foster that marks a turning point in the novel. Once extricated from his mother’s suffocating web, Foster begins to develop under new influences and guidance. These lessons help him find himself and his purpose and provide an opportunity for stability and self-confidence that was impossible in his previous situation.
Foster grows rapidly in the novel, perhaps too much so for a teenager, but he retains many childlike qualities as well. He’s not as precocious as his African American friend Jimmy, who nurtures Foster’s natural desire to become independent without ever resorting to teasing, dares, or belittling. Although mature for his age owing to familial circumstances, Jimmy has the typical sense of immortality that teenagers often exhibit. It’s a fine companion to Foster’s timidness. The boys bring out the best in each other.
Because the circumstances of the story insulate the characters, they converse primarily among themselves, at times conveying more information than a conversation might reliably hold. Foster’s thoughts, too, are at times dominated by facts. Readers new to the topic of environmental justice will learn much from these insertions. Those already steeped in the message may find them a bit heavy-handed. The characters’ actions and never-wavering choices are put into context this way, however, and they are heavy choices for youngsters to make — especially Jimmy, whose environmental leanings were tenuous until the system stripped from him the last of anything he had to lose. The evidence presented is overwhelming. It must be if these choices are to make sense.
Many questions about Foster’s mother and her apparent descent into madness go unanswered. We never discover the subject matter or the content of the painting she undertakes as Foster begins to press for his independence. Presumably it’s the first she’s painted on a large scale since her completion of My Drear. While it’s not hard to understand why Foster flees his stifling upbringing, the ease with which he does so, especially emotionally and without hearing details of his mother’s story from those who can likely supply them, is somewhat surprising. The origins of Rita’s struggles, beyond those obvious in the course her life has taken, remain unknown.
The story balances strong threads of dismay and hope and suggests that radical action is required and will work to change the current trends of deforestation, pollution, and resource extraction. It’s pleasant to watch a sea change unfold in the book through small but significant acts and bold undertakings that move both policy and the public.
I found the writing moving, and the outcome of one major character remains in enough doubt that a sequel almost begs to be written. I hope Smitowicz will consider doing so. Though many environmental threats are vanquished in the book, one gets the distinct feeling that capitalism and injustice have not been buried completely along with them. That interpretation may be my cynicism more than any suggestion made in the novel, but given the enormous challenges the characters face throughout the story, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t also face aftershocks of greed and power struggle even within resounding success.
I connected with this story on many levels. I’m always up for a novel that involves walks in the woods, and my personal experiences in the forest have so saturated my senses and spirit that I’m almost certain to feel resonance with words and stories that bring them to mind. Personally, my heart lies close to the territory these characters traverse. The story is larger than life to an extent, but its political themes are real in our world today. There is humor in the character development that made me smile and laugh, and the characters are not without their flaws, which grounds the more spectacular elements of the story so that it can romp, rollick, and entertain while offering opportunities for sincere thought and introspection.