What’s it about?
Set in a small town in New Hampshire in the year 1971, Monoosook (Muh-NOO-sook) Valley tells the story of a 35-year-old woman – and mother of two teenage children – coming out of the deep freeze she’s been in since the untimely death of her husband 12 years earlier.
There’s nothing actually wrong with the status quo for Shirley Morrison, who runs the local hair salon (aptly named The Curly Q). Sure, she sometimes feels lonely. Sure, her kids are smoking too much pot. And sure, her daughter is right when she calls Monoosook “one big clique.” But things are about to change for Shirley – and for her children as well, amidst the backdrop of a country still at war.
Using different points of view, Elisabeth Hyde captures a time, place, and national mood when nothing can be taken for granted, and everything is up for grabs.
more Critical Acclaim
“With wonderful detail and marvelous dialogue, Hyde (Her Native Colors) expertly chronicles the bittersweet liberation of Shirley Morrison.”
“Hyde is interested not just in the confusion of those times, but in the particulars of confusion, the specific collisions between politics and personal life, and between growing up and dropping out. As in her first novel, Her Native Colors (1986), she displays a remarkable gift for characterization and for moving gracefully in and out of several viewpoints.”
—The San Francisco Chronicle
“Hyde doesn’t make it easy for anyone in this novel, but she makes it real. Her characters change as they grow and experience new events. That’s life, and Hyde clearly and sympathetically illuminates life’s process.”
—The Chicago Tribune
Time and place are almost characters in their own right in this novel. Why New Hampshire? Why 1971?
I was turning 18 that year, and desperately wanted out. Throughout my high school years I’d always had the feeling that Concord (on which Monoosook Valley is loosely based) was a few giant steps behind the rest of the nation. Anything we did seemed to me a dinky imitation of the real thing, whether it was protesting the Vietnam war or getting people interested in natural foods. You know how everything starts in California? Well, Concord felt like the caboose on that train.
Of course that was my naïve and judgmental 18-year-old lens, but it left enough of an impression on me that I wanted to recreate the life I knew, the frustration of watching important things happen in the rest of the country while you were living in this little insular community where nothing would ever matter as much as it did elsewhere. I’m sure this is a common feeling among teens in small towns across the country, but I know New Hampshire well, even though I haven’t lived there for over 40 years.
Concord today, by the way, is a very cool town. Just a shout-out.
Joanie’s ex-boyfriend Stu continues to stalk her, much in the same way Bill Branson later stalks Megan in The Abortionist’s Daughter. Was it a conscious decision to follow up on this theme?
To be honest: No. I’d completely forgotten about Stu when I was writing The Abortionist’s Daughter. I tend to put my books behind me – way behind. But I suppose something in my brain wanted to explore this theme in more depth, with consequences that were a bit more dire than they were in Monoosook Valley, which is where Bill came in. In short, I guess I wasn’t finished with Stu. But I think I’m finished with Bill; I’ll surprise myself if this theme crops up in future novels.
What was the most difficult part of writing this novel?
Sustaining narrative tension. My early drafts were more or less portraits of a time and place – full of detail, with rich and well-developed characters, but I needed to drive the story forward, and that took some work. Bringing Marty Schwartz into this WASPy community opened up a lot of narrative potential; with him, I was no longer simply building a literary model of this town. There was tension and drama as he pushed people’s buttons – including Shirley’s.
This isn’t a murder mystery, or an adventure tale; it’s not a story of family dysfunction. The characters’ dilemmas are very real, but they’re quiet dilemmas. After writing this book I was ready to take on something a little more, well, noisy. Hence mental illness in Crazy As Chocolate, and the murder of an abortion provider in The Abortionist’s Daughter.
An Excerpt from Monoosook valley
From Chapter 5: Yellow Star
These days, of course, the war in Vietnam was on everybody’s minds. It was 1971, after all, and so even here in Monoosook – twelve thousand miles from the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta – maple leaves changed color and snow fell and daffodils bloomed, and all the while everyone talked about the war: about Tet, and Vietnamization, and My Lai; about LBJ’s bailing out; about Spiro Agnew and the student demonstrators and the tragedy at Kent State.
Monoosook was a conservative town in a conservative state; as the rest of the country grew more opposed to the war, the elders here held fast to the Domino Theory. They had elected Richard Nixon by a landslide back in 1968, and they were genuinely optimistic about his policy of Vietnamization, his ultimate goal of peace with honor. We can’t abandon the South Vietnamese just like that, was the prevailing view; sure, we should end the war but we can’t simply walk out on them and let the Communists take over. For once Vietnam goes, one by one they’re all going to topple.
Which is not to say that the town had been pushing its boys into combat. Often while a father might be lecturing his son on the need to escalate the bombing of North Vietnam, the mother would be finagling with college-admissions committees, or talking to ministers, or explaining her son’s allergies to the family doctor – all the while hoping for that college deferment, that CO status, that 4-f classification. Nobody wanted Greg, or Donald, or Roger, to go to Vietnam. And in fact very few sons actually went. They got those student deferments, and they got those medical exemptions. And those who didn’t – well, Monoosook stood behind them and sent them off with a hero’s farewell.
Naturally, in this kind of a setting, anyone in town who spoke out against the war was viewed with suspicion. In fact, many of the townspeople – Charley Bates among them – believed the antiwar movement was firmly linked to the government of North Vietnam. Still, though, Monoosook did have its own outspoken activists. Sally Luty (who made the ham loaf for Charley’s funeral) was one. Herself a widow, she had lost a son during Tet, and these days she would stand outside the grocery store during heat waves and during blizzards, handing out her leaflets. Or rather, trying to hand them out. Most everyone smiled, remembering Roger (a bit of a rabble-rouser, actually), but they would shake their heads politely, turn away, and go on wheeling their overladen grocery carts out to their station wagons.
And Marty Schwartz was another. After three years people still didn’t know what to make of Marty. They were generally mistrustful, because he was from New York, and because he was a writer, and because he was Jewish; but despite all that, they couldn’t dislike him. They were too afraid of him to dislike him; he seemed to know more than they did, about everything. And besides, he was so nice, always asking about the grandfather’s prostate condition, or Aunt Sue’s appetite. So that when Marty handed out a leaflet, they took it. Maybe they dropped it into a puddle of slush or threw it away with the grocery receipts, but they took it.
Actually, most of the town’s antiwar sentiment was to be found at the high school, where you could see a few black armbands, or peace signs, or old Eugene McCarthy bumper stickers. Not a lot, but enough to lend some counterpoint to the more conservative editorials in The Monoosook Valley News. Of course, protesting the war and smoking pot went hand-in-hand; and so people like Rick and Ron DeCoto and Hunter Greene and Stevie Winslow were still largely convinced that their parents were right, that U.S. policies in Southeast Asia were as sound as granite. Not so with Bernie and Tucker. For a while the school had enforced a rule that forbade anyone to hang any kind of a political statement on the outside of his or her locker. But as with the September Haircut Revolution, Bernie broke the rule, fought a brief battle, and won; and these days his locker was plastered with antiwar and related messages. “Stop the War Now” read one slogan. “Free Bobby Seale” read another. “How Many More?” (At one point he put up a poster that read “If you were being raped, would you ask for gradual withdrawal?” But here the administration drew the line. Free speech was one thing, obscenity another.) Tucker himself constructed an elegant peace sign, using orange poster-board and fluorescent green tape. He glued on glitter and sequins, and on dark days you could see it sparkling from one end of the long gloomy basement corridor to the other.
Joanie, on the other hand, had a more pragmatic attitude. She considered herself just as much against the war as her brother and Bernie and Marty, but in her view what good did it do to plaster your locker with “Dump Nixon” stickers? All it did was give the school administration reason to put you under some kind of surveillance. Not that she would have minded; it would have been a kind of honor. But putting up signs just seemed pointless. The war was going to continue on whatever course the President chose, regardless of any sign that a fifteen-year-old girl in Monoosook Valley, New Hampshire, stuck on her locker door.
Tucker argued vehemently with her.
“What if everyone acted like you?” he demanded. “Do you think there would have been anything like the Mobe? Do you think there would have been the march on Washington?”
“No,” Joanie admitted.
“That’s right,” Tucker said, growing more agitated. “People have to speak up, people have to make themselves heard. Or else everyone begins to believe that there is a Silent Majority out there.”
“But other people do speak up,” Joanie said. “Everybody doesn’t act like I do.”
“You don’t really care about this, do you?” Tucker said. “You’re never going to get drafted, why should you bother?”
Joanie was silent. Tucker was wrong, of course. She did care. She had a brother. He could die over there. It was just that putting up signs in the high school and leafleting the souped-up bombers in the parking lot seemed so futile. It was sad to her, really, this handful of protesters in such a right-wing town.
She let out a sigh. “Oh, Tucker, if we lived somewhere else I’d put up signs,” she said. “Say we lived in Boston, or Berkeley – then there might be some point. Everyone else would be doing it; we’d make an impact. But here?” She held up a copy of The Monoosook Valley News. “Too Cold for the Easter Bunny?” read the headline. Joanie shook her head. “What’s the use?”