Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

9780399588563_p0_v2_s192x300Where did you grow up?  Is your childhood home still there with all its memories?  What if it were gone forever?  With the sixties as her timeframe and a small farming town two hours outside of Philadelphia as the setting, Anna Quindlen creates an unforgettable family in Miller’s Valley with a story of lives connected to both time and place.

The story follows the journey of the narrator, Mimi Miller, as she grows from a bright eleven year old who sells corn at a small stand outside her family farm to scholarship student at the University of Pennsylvania, and eventually, a medical doctor who returns to her hometown.  Her mother, a nurse, stabilizes the family with her income and her wisdom; her father, whose family has held the farm for two hundred years, is a stoic man who can fix anything from broken radios to the old sump pump in the basement; her older brothers split into Tommy, the appealing black sheep who goes off to fight in the Vietnam war and returns broken, and Eddie, the steady and boring  brother who grows up to capitalize on the destruction of the land.  Peripheral to the family core but just as important to the theme are others: Aunt Ruth, an agoraphobic with a secret, who never leaves the small house next door, and Steve, Mimi’s boyfriend. 

Quindlen’s main characters are ripe and deep, and you will remember them and wonder about them long after the story is over.

The villain is the government, personified by a slick developer, who is pressuring farmers and town folk to leave to make way for a government sponsored dam and reservoir, surrounded by new patchwork housing.  Clearly, some are happy to sell – including Mimi’s mother – while others, including Mimi’s father, dig in to preserve their heritage.  Mimi is scared of what the future holds but it seems there is no stopping progress – or the government.    

I wondered about the historical accuracy of the story; is there a town and a farm under water in Pennsylvania because of a dam realized through government intervention and industry?  The closest I could get is Codorus State Park and Lake Marburg in York County – both the timeframe and the location fit:

The creation Codorus State Park is tied to a cooperative effort between private enterprise and state and local government. The borough of Spring Grove and the P.H. Glatfelter Company worked together to dam Codorus Creek. The purpose of the dam was to provide drinking water for Spring Grove and to meet the industrial needs of the paper plant owned by the P.H. Glatfelter Company in the borough…a park was created on the shores of the newly made Lake Marburg.[1]

Lake Marburg gets its name from the small community of Marburg, home of a handful of buildings – including a farmstead – that was flooded in December 1966, when Codorus Creek was dammed. The land for the park was acquired as part of the Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act, with the governor approving the acquisition on December 10, 1964.  Underwater Ghost Town 



Quindlen is one of my favorite authors; I have a few of her books on my shelf – just cannot part with them.  I’ve quoted from her memoir – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – but I was happy to see another of her novels and anxiously pre-ordered it.  Although the historical aspects are informative, the message of hearth and home – and where it is – left me with a disturbing as well as comforting feeling.  As someone who is displaced, and still misses the place I called home – although it is not underwater and remains the same as when my children skated on the nearby pond –  I can relate to the last paragraph of the novel:

“I never go over that way…But every couple of years I have a dream.  I dive down into green water and I use my arms to push myself far below the surface and when I open my eyes there are barn roofs and old fences…But I swim in the opposite direction, back toward the light, because I have to come up for air.  I still need to breath.”

Life goes on, wherever you are, as long as you can keep breathing…

My Reviews of Quindlen Books:  

De Potter’s Grand Tour

9780374162337_p0_v1_s260x420If I had met Joanna Scott’s Armand de Potter and his wife Aimee, tour directors extraordinaire, I would have signed up to follow them around the world, and probably never questioned their authenticity.  In De Potter’s Grand Tour, Scott treats the reader to vicarious trips to Europe, Egypt, and exotic experiences popular in the world tours of the late 1800s.  The tour leader is charming, well-read, educated and a distinguished man of letters who is also an imposter.

Scott loosely bases the story on her grandparents’ letters and experiences, inserting actual black and white photographs to make the characters seem real.  Her writing style reads like a documentary, coldly observing the action, but the book is fiction.

Armand de Potter is the focus of the gambit, an immigrant who yearns to be respected as a collector of artefacts, with a talent for organizing and leading tours.  Like a modern day Tauck, de Potter manages his group’s needs with ease, and always inserts significant insider glimpses of venues and speakers otherwise not available to the touring public – endearing himself to his travelers, while they praise him to their friends and fuel his business.

Unknown to his wife and his business associates, de Potter’s background is more peasant than aristocrat, and his yearning to be a collector has jeopardized his finances.  Although he has managed to collect a sizable amount of Egyptian antiquities, their provenances are questionable and he has donated them all to the University of Pennsylvania, in the vain hope for an honorary degree and recognition.  With the creditors at his heels, De Potter decides that his life insurance policy is his only saving worth.

The story itself is fueled by the reason for dePotter’s disappearance.  Scott cleverly dangles the possibilities of whether or not he died at sea, purposely or accidentally, or deceived the crew and walked away into an anonymous life, leaving his wife to reconcile the debts and believe him dead. His fate is not revealed until the ending, and by then the reader has probably decided whether or not de Potter is a scoundrel or merely a harmless pretender.

With Scott’s ploy to convince the reader of the truth of the story, the reader never really understands the main character; he seems contrived.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about those glamorous grand tours, when travel by ship rather than plane brought the curious to far-off sites, and walking miles was the rule for appreciating hidden treasures –  the good old times when noone could recline a plane seat into my lap.