A review of Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Maryanne O’Hara’s novel, Cascade, begins in a small town by that name which is threatened with obliteration when the Massachusetts Water Commission decides to make it the site of a reservoir to supply Boston’s water needs. Most of the story’s action takes place in 1934-5, when America was still caught up in the Great Depression.

O’Hara does an excellent job of recreating life in 1930s New England. It was a time when telephone calls had to be placed through an operator, who could listen in. Travelling salesmen went door-to-door selling small household items. Drugstores had grills and soda fountains. Railways and the telegraph were as important as the automobile and the telephone. Hitler was rising to power in Europe and anti-Semitic slurs were not unknown in North America. To alleviate the desperate poverty which had followed the 1929 stock market crash, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration invested public money in infrastructure programs and other job-creation projects, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), with its arts and culture branch.

In this milieu, O’Hara places a young woman artist, who, at first, seems to have little chance of fulfilment in life or in art. Desdemona Hart, known as Dez, has been well educated in her craft in Boston and Paris. Her dream of pursuing her art in New York City is thwarted when she is called home because of her father’s failing finances and health. William Hart, owner of a Shakespearean theatre owner in Cascade, has saved his “Playhouse” but has lost everything else that he owned, including, he says, a valuable folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays. He gives Dez “Portia’s casket”, a locked chest which she is to open when the theatre reopens someday.

To put a roof over their heads, Dez marries Asa Spaulding, who owns a house, forty-two acres of woodland, and the Cascade drugstore. She has long been aware of his feelings for her, but their paths diverged when she was away studying art. She likes him but does not love him. When they marry, Mr. Hart deeds the theatre to Asa, not wanting to come empty-handed to live in Asa’s home.

After her father’s death two months after the wedding, Dez realizes that she and Asa have different goals and expectations. She is trapped with him if she wants to protect her father’s legacy, the theatre. Two external events add to her angst. One is the likelihood that the state government will choose Cascade to flood, rather than a neighbouring hamlet. Some locals, including Asa, are angry at the thought of relocating. Others, harder hit by the poor economy, look forward to compensation for their lost property and the chance to make a fresh start. Meanwhile, Dez meets a young travelling salesman, Jacob Solomon, who is based in Springfield and who has taken over his late father’s route. Their shared interest in art leads to friendship, then love. Jacob plans to move to New York City to work in the WPA “Project Easel” for artists, and Dez dreams of going with him.

The local fight against the flooding of Cascade provides Dez with an artistic opportunity. She creates a series of drawings depicting the beauties of the town under threat and gets them published in the American Sunday Standard magazine. The result: some fame and a job offer in New York. Tensions mount with Asa. When a water commission employee is found drowned, local anti-semitism rears its ugly head, and Jacob is jailed as a person of interest. Heedlessly, Dez has contributed to suspicion falling upon him.

Is Cascade a tragedy? The blighting of a passionate love-affair, combined with other revelations at the end, evoke sadness and regret for what might have been. Yet Dez’s success, both in art and in life, strikes a positive note. Too many novels depict a woman in the arts accepting limited or no success in her field, because she has given herself up to romance, child-rearing or an unproductive bohemian lifestyle. It is refreshing that Dez escapes these fates. Her desire to create art instead of babies reflects the example of many successful women artists and writers.

The flooding of Cascade, based on the true story of the Quabbin Reservoir, completed in 1939, is a real event yet also a metaphor for life’s constant changes. Water imagery seeps into the novel throughout, in Dez’s father’s drowning nightmares, in Dez’s being submerged in small-town Cascade, in Jacob helping her to paint water realistically, and in the drowning of the water commission employee, a key plot point. This pattern of imagery ties in with the theme that one must “go with the flow”. As Dez says, at the end, “Trying to hold onto things is uncertain.”

O’Hara ends with three surprises, which are jarring until one realizes that the author carefully foreshadowed them. I would have liked a longer novel with the last third more fully developed. The first two-thirds, set in Cascade and covering 1934-5, are shown, not told; that is, fully dramatized, not summarized. The the last third, set in New York City and covering 1935-9, with a leap forward to 1947, involves more summary. True, the transformative events occur in the first part of the story, and certainly the sketchy presentation of a new character contributes to the surprise ending, but, even so, the last third feels rushed and abbreviated.

All in all, however, this first novel by the former associate fiction editor of Ploughshares literary magazine is a thought-provoking, emotional experience.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s young adult novel, The Songcatcher and Me, is being published in 2013 by Baico Publishing of Ottawa, Canada (baico@bellnet.ca)