My father, a civil engineer, worked at our local power plant for most of my youth, moving to the power company’s headquarters in glamorous Poughkeepsie when I was a teen. His position there was as a sort of energy-saving czar; he was eco and green at a corporate level long before bigger companies established their environmental divisions and initiatives.
I tell you this so you’ll understand both where my mind goes when I hear the word “power,” and also why the Front-list title I’ve selected this week piqued my curiosity. Growing up, my father (and my mother, too) constantly exhorted me to turn off lights, use less water, not waste paper and return every can and bottle. In an era when their friends were busy filling trash cans with bottles of Canadian Club, my parents practiced rigorous recycling. They knew, intuitively, that a time would come when everyone would have to pay the price of squandered resources.
In A Sudden Light, the new novel from Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain), that time has come, at least for one particular resource. It’s 1990 in the Pacific Northwest and the Riddell family has reaped financial gain and emotional angst from their many decades at the top of the lumber trade. Their ancestral manor is even constructed entirely from large, whole trees — and it seems, as 14-year-old Trevor Riddell returns there with his father Jones, that the spirits of those trees may be affecting the family’s fortunes. At times, the plot is as turgid as the waters of the nearby Puget Sound, but the comparison between rapacity and rot works well to enhance a gothic, mysterious feel overall.
The idea of trees as truth-telling ghosts naturally led me to… Dr. Seuss. This makes sense now that you know a little bit about my childhood; I was and still am powerfully influenced the wonderful story The Lorax. Remember that furry little guy that “speaks for the trees” and rails against the greedy Once-ler who tries to get everyone to “need a Thneed,” thereby decimating the landscape? Just as in Stein’s novel, a young boy’s need for truth, rather than money or Thneeds, propels the story — and if you’ve read “The Lorax,” you’ll already know that even when all of the Truffula trees have been cut down, a small seed can make a difference. My father believed that, and I do, too. There is power in hope.