Books — Evening Ferry
By Michelle Saturley
A brave new writer
Towler’s Ferry is a powerful piece of work
Evening Ferry by Katherine Towler, MacAdam/Cage, 2005, 378 pages.
Katherine Towler, a Portsmouth-based fiction writer, returns to the literary scene with her sophomore effort, Evening Ferry. This second novel is a sequel of sorts to her first book, Snow Island, in the sense that the events take place on the same fictional island somewhere off the coast of Rhode Island, but instead of continuing the narrative of that book’s main character, this book paints a vivid story of another Snow Island daughter, Rachel Shattuck.
The year is 1965, and Snow Island native Rachel is living on the mainland, licking her wounds after an unhappy marriage and quiet divorce. She is still processing the grief of her mother’s death a year earlier, and continues to be estranged from the rest of her family, especially her father, Nate, a gruff mechanic who has always lived on the island.
Content in her uncomplicated new life as a third-grade teacher, Rachel returns home to care for her father — albeit reluctantly — after he is injured falling off a roof. At first, she and her father continue their cool game of avoidance, until Nate presents his daughter with a diary belonging to her mother. After quickly devouring one notebook, she finds a whole stack of them hiding in the closet, spanning the Depression and WWII eras and beyond.
Through reading the diary entries, Rachel gets a glimpse of what her mother was like as a younger woman, before the children were born and the hardship of island living dragged her down. All her life, Rachel believed that her mother was the long-suffering wife of a hard, unfeeling man, but she realizes through reading the journals that her mother is also human — complete with secrets, mistakes, flaws and heartaches all her own.
Rachel soon begins to feel the pull of small-town life through interaction with the assortment of characters residing on the island. There’s Alice, her best school friend, who still runs the store with her mother and husband; Eddie, Rachel’s old boyfriend, who has become a surrogate son to Nate since Rachel’s older brother died in Korea; and Miss Weeden, the old schoolteacher who has some sage advice for Rachel. These are the folks she grew up with — the ones who know her better than anyone.
Though Rachel insists that she’s planning to head back to the mainland once her father is healed, it isn’t long before she takes the vacant teaching job at the Snow Island schoolhouse. It is here that she truly becomes part of her hometown, and develops a deep but platonic friendship with one of her students, Nick, whom she tries to convince to go to college instead of being drafted and sent to Vietnam. She also rekindles a tender friendship with Eddie, who seems to have been pining away for Rachel all these years. Just when Rachel has settled into the daily rhythm of island life, she learns the truth surrounding the circumstances of her mother’s death, blowing her dysfunctional relationship with her father wide open.
Towler not only tells a story, she transports the reader to the place and time of the action. Through spare but concise prose that relays the thoughts and motivations of her characters, along with crisp, realistic dialog, the reader has a sense of becoming one of the residents of Snow Island. Towler does a remarkable job capturing the essence of small-town life, especially during the late ’60s. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, but never lets on. These are three-dimensional people with their own unique sets of desires and disappointments.
Fowler is superb at exposing the fragile side of family life — how the failure to communicate, year upon year, can damage a relationship so badly that it may never recover. She also writes about the joy of reconnecting, and how a person must go back to the root of problems in order to move forward as a successful human being. Evening Ferry is a moving, human story, and Towler is a powerful, brave new writer.
Editor’s note: Evening Ferry will be released later this summer.
- Michelle Saturley
2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH