Isn't the road to publication a strange and tortuous one? In my heart of hearts, I'd like to believe that every worthy manuscript eventually finds its way into print, that the market is efficient enough to separate the chaff from the grain even if it takes a lot of flailing to do so. But sometimes I have my doubts. For instance, take Lars Walker's latest novel, Troll Valley. Despite penning multiple high-quality books in the past, Walker wasn't able to get a publishing house to bite on this project. Perhaps a title about turn-of-the-century Norwegian-American Lutheran Minnesotans sounded like too much of a marketing challenge. That's a shame, because it's one of the finest things Walker has written.
From the moment he wakes up in the unfamiliar house, Shane Anderson knows he's in for pain. There's the hospital bed he finds himself in and the very large man parked between him and the door. Seems Shane's family finally wised up to his hard-partying antics and hired a professional to detox him the difficult way. All Shane has to entertain himself with for the next month is a manuscript written by his crippled great-grandfather Christian Anderson. Sounds excruciatingly boring. But as he fights delirium tremens and loosening bowels, Shane will turn to the manuscript as a means of escape, and what he finds there will shock him. He will learn not only of his great-grandfather's struggles with small-town internecine savagery and the vast social changes of the Progressive Era, but also of a supernatural secret: Christian had a backdoor to Faery.
For the record, I hold little in common with the characters of Troll Valley. I'm not of Norwegian descent, I'm not Lutheran, and the closest I've come to even setting foot in Minnesota is a trip to friend's wedding in Wisconsin. But I still found them engaging. Walker understands that literature is supposed about the stuff of universal human experience, and he uses his characters' specific situations to touch on it. Alienation and belonging, love and lust, faith and doubt -- all make appearances. What's more, Walker refuses to turn Christian and his family into flat caricatures. With one notable exception, they're well-rounded and multi-faceted, sometimes acting in unexpected (but ultimately consistent) ways. Then there's the fantasy element. Christian has a faery godmother named Miss Margit, although that term and Troll Valley's lamentably trite subtitle ("The Fairy Tale Your Grandparents Never Told You") hardly encapsulates the character. Forget childhood Disney movies: Miss Margit is eerie and wild and very, very violent when circumstances require it, and the glimpses she gives us into Fae suggest that world lies far more entangled with our own than any would care to admit. The same could be said for the thorny thematic issues the novel addresses. Though prohibition sounds like a long dead cause to 21st century ears, Walker reminds us that the mindset which spawned it is still with us. Ferocious, poignant and wry, Troll Valley is worth taking a trip into.
(Picture: CC 2008 by garlandcannon)