4 Epic Adirondack Novels to Read on Long Winter Nights
by Elizabeth Folwell
Curling up with a good book is a natural response to cold, dark nights. Here is a quartet of novels with fascinating characters, intriguing plot twists and Adirondack settings. They sweep through the centuries; explore class, race and conscience; depict real places; and don’t shy from plenty of sex and violence.
John Brown’s body is truly a-mouldering in a grave near Lake Placid, and Russell Banks’s 558-page Cloudsplitter is firmly grounded in these mountains. It tells about the terrible cost paid by Brown’s family for the abolitionist’s radical politics. Banks describes the 1998 novel as a work of the imagination, not a history; characters and events are created and combined to build what the New York Times Book Review calls “some highly entertaining—and at times, deeply affecting—reading. For all its flaws, it emerges as Mr. Banks’s most ambitious and fully realized novel since Continental Drift.
“With Loon Lake,” E. L. Doctorow said in a Paris Review interview in 1980, “it was just a very strong sense of place, a heightened emotion when I found myself in the Adirondacks after many, many years of being away . . . and all this came to a point when I saw a sign, a road sign: Loon Lake.” The massive, circuitous narrative follows Joe, of New Jersey, in a quest for power, money and sex that begins with an image from a passing train as he stands alone in the woods. The lodge in the story bears an uncanny resemblance to the Great Camp Eagle Nest, near Blue Mountain Lake, built by William Distin for Walter and Kay Hochschild in the late 1930s.
Even if you only thumbed through CliffsNotes for An American Tragedy, you probably know that Grace Brown died below the dark waters of Big Moose Lake. Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel is based on real events described in Craig Brown’s An Adirondack Tragedy, which follows what was called in 1906 the “crime of the century” from the central New York factory where the lovers met to the murder trial and incarceration of Chester Gillette.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Only after Plath’s suicide was she bylined as author of this tale of ambition, doubt, mental illness and alpine skiing. Skiing? One noteworthy episode takes place at Saranac Lake’s Mount Pisgah, in which the heroine puts on skis for the first time, points them straight downhill and crashes spectacularly, ending up in the hospital with broken bones.
These books are available from local libraries, often as downloads if you’re a member. For real locations that have inspired Adirondack nonfiction and fiction alike visit the Adirondack Center for Writing’s literary map. And, in every December issue, Adirondack Life publishes a roundup of new regional reads so you can explore every genre from poetry to guidebooks, kid lit to mysteries. Here are the most recent years’ lists, from 2013, 2012 and 2011.