A Spell on the Water by Marjorie Kowalsi Cole
University of Michigan Press, 2011
Review copy provided by the publisher via HNR, thank you!
Reviewed originally for Historical Novels Review magazine
In 1955, Mary and Jim Leader have the American dream: careers in medicine; a young and healthy family; and even a vacation home---a shabby resort far from bustling Chicago. But one hot afternoon changes everything. Mary, now a widow, must find a path out of her grief into a future for herself and five small children.
In Michigan to sell the resort, Mary sees seven hawks riding the storm winds over the lake. This place, she thinks, can heal them with its wild beauty, so she moves her family to the northern lakeshore.
But Mary has forgotten what it's like to live in a tiny rural community, where almost everyone has a stake in maintaining the status quo. Secrets are kept at great cost as Mary's children often struggle to raise themselves. A coming-of-age story for each member of the family, this is a novel of quiet heroism and the power of personal freedom.
With the strong theme of survival after loss, Marjorie Kowalski Cole dramatizes the life of a family who moves to Northern Michigan to permanently stay in their resort-style vacation home. A mother to five young children, Mary is suddenly a widow and is forced to raise her children on her own. The biggest decision of her life is to move to the rural town, raising her kids in the 1960’s to be strong, independent and without prejudice. The beautiful setting of their home in Pinestead is a character in itself, as the author portrays her love of nature’s beauty through her descriptive writing of the sounds and sights where Mary Leader’s family lives.
Instead of embracing the idyllic life the small community had to offer, Mary succumbs to alcoholism and puts her family and others at risk. We watch her children grow up while in turn they watch her with trepidation, with the hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
With a unique writing style, the author’s prose begins to grow on you after a while. At first it felt stunted and without form, seeming like a runaway train that we couldn’t catch. The bounce from a stream of conscious rhythm back to the past tense was initially jarring but soon became natural. At times the writing mimicked a memoir rather than a novel, except the narrative also shifted point of views between mother and children. With this shift, it was hard to grasp empathy for one character alone, but the hope for the family’s survival was always there. Instead of romanticizing the family’s struggles, this is a plainspoken story of a family’s intertwining faith and grief, coupled with teenager angst and alcoholism that speaks from a hopeful heart.