TEARS OF THE MOUNTAIN
By John Addiego
The histories of both Jeremiah McKinley and old California are displayed during the course of the Fourth of July in 1876 in John Addiego's novel. Jeremiah is one of those characters who just want to live a quiet life, to live and let live. But the most interesting things happen to him, and it all catches up with him during the course of this day.
Jumping back and forth between his past and the current day, Tears of the Mountain uses Jeremiah's life to showcase the struggle to survive and wonders of what he and his family find along the way. In the present, Jeremiah and his wife, who was his first love, have a family. He is respected in the Sonoma community. He has friends throughout society's spectrum, including a reprobate old professor who is coming in on the morning train.
But before the reader gets very far, the scene jumps back to when Jeremiah was a boy and his family crossed the country to get to California. If not for what the reader already knows, there are times it's a wonder anyone survives the crossing. The McKinley family and the rest of their train encounter water deprivation, run-ins with tribes who treat the intruders wrong, quarrels among the emigrants and those mountains.
Jeremiah's mother has been raising the family without his father, a mountain man who took off for years after the eldest son died. Daniel returns without notice and abruptly commands the family to pack up. They're headed for the West. During the epic journey, Daniel is compared to Job by Jeremiah, while he is given the roles of prophet and leader by the other members of the train. The remarkable accomplishment is that Addiego sets it up so this works during the trip. But there is little connection to the grown Jeremiah.
In the novel's current day, Jeremiah is a character who reacts to what happens to him. Although this often happened during his journey as a youth, Jeremiah also acted. As an adult, this device acts more as a reason to throw everything that happened during the 1870s up against the wall that is Jeremiah's life to see if it sticks. Jeremiah visits the hot springs spa at the local hotel, awaits the arrival of his old professor who publicaly insults the senator speaking from the back of the railroad car and is drawn into a seance at the worship center of a local cult leader. A young boy is brought to Jeremiah's farm by his parents and he insists he is the reincarnated Daniel, Jeremiah's father. Jeremiah begins the day with a strange dream involving his first wife who died, and strange greetings to him through the day make him question the faithfulness of his current wife, and she of him. Much ado is made of people and events that eventually peter out.
None of these events or characters propel the narrative forward. They are like rocks in a clear stream that create detours, instead of obstacles to overcome that determine character. The best explanation offered is that Jeremiah holds the story of Exodus dear because he sees how humans are frail and act against their own better interests. Seeing this helps him to forgive others.
In addition to Jeremiah's full day, the time shifts continue throughout the story in alternating chapters. These shifts between segments are carried out with sentences that seque from one scene to another. It doesn't always work smoothly, but it is a poetic way to show how anyone's thoughts lead naturally from the present to the past and back again. Also Jeremiah feels dislodged from normal time during the latter day parts of the novel. He wonders if a person can rest his soul beside the flowing river and be in more than one place at the same time. It's a fascinating idea but sometimes feel disconnected from the individual segments of the story. Smooth out the timeline, and a lot happens to Jeremiah, meeting Fremont and being in on the 1846 attempt to create the Republic of California by wresting land from the Mexicans already there, to the gold fields, dangerous San Francisco and back to the family farm. Key events often are not chronicled directly in the narrative, but referred to beforehand and afterwards.
Tears of the Mountain does have its strengths. It is filled with beautiful writing at the wondrous marvels of California and some of the people who helped form her character by the time of that 1876 holiday. High spots of the journey include conversations with a Southern emigrant and others about the appropriateness of said emigrant enslaving a young Indian caught stealing, the ways that the emigrants separate and how the small group with Jeremiah's family finally finds their new homes.
Throughout, the novel features excellent descriptive passages of the landscape and how it affects the characters. Because that's how it is out West. The land is part of us. Combine that with a passage of Jeremiah noting he feels he has spent his life "trying to understand things of light and dark", and Tears of the Mountain is an ambitious idea about how to relate the enormous challenge of making a new life in a new land. Although this may not be a perfect novel, there is much to recommend in it. Best of all, the sense of place and how someone who loves his home forges his life stay with the reader. That is, indeed, something worth celebrating.
©2010 All Rights Reserved Reviews at CompuServe Books and reprinted with permission