(Kohl Publishing, 2012); pbk. £8.99.
Elizabeth Reeder’s second novel, Fremont, follows hot on the heels of her well-received debut, Ramshackle. Fremont has the same assuredness and lightness of touch, strong characterisation, and beautiful poetic prose as the earlier novel. It also takes the reader to a different state, in many different ways.
Fremont is not primarily narrative driven but that’s not to say there isn’t a story line. A family saga, the novel is set in small-town America. Rachel Roanoke meets Hal Fremont in that archetypal mid-Western setting, the diner, and within 24 hours they are married and moving to Hal’s inherited mock-antebellum home with its map which will become the central trope of the story: “This map, handmade and huge, has been and will always be, incomplete. Secured to the wall and painted with care, this map represents the somewhat united states of the Fremont family.”
From the opening passages, reading Fremont is like entering a dream-state. In part, this is evoked by the beautifully lyrical writing style. In equal part it’s the suspension of reality that is required – and easily attained – to believe that Hal’s family has only ever known the birth of boy babies until Rachel’s brood of twelve girls and one boy. And Rachel herself was a freak girl child in a long line of boys: “[u]ntil she came along, and then the Island and its community bucked her mother off first, days after Rachel’s birth, and then her, days after her sixteenth birthday, into the water to preserve the only way of procreation they’d ever known.” These surreal vignettes lift this family saga to the domain of myth or fable.
Rachel names her children after thirteen of the US States and Hal adds each state to the house map with their arrival. Reeder has very subtly answered the question, “If this US State were a person, what personality traits would it have?” So Tex, the only son, is forced to supress his feminine aspects as a child when his father cuts off his flowing locks. This repression and suppression has ramifications later in life when the masculine, competitive, acquisitive traits of Texas, the man and the state, emerge. It makes for a fascinating read, both as characterisation and as sustained metaphor for the psyches of the thirteen states.
The Fremont family endure tragedies, infidelities, betrayals, bullying and prejudice over the years. And again, it is the map that provides the metaphor by which they and we make some sense of the twists and turns that life takes. Bearings are lost, known places are returned to, unknown destinations are sought, “A map can reflect and represent as well as direct. It can clarify. It can confuse. Naomi [New Mexico] is out there riding along cliffs, which are just like the edges of jutting corners if you think about it, this defined edge pushing out into space and existing between one thing and another and another. Earth, sky, water. Family, place, self.” Boundaries are always liminal, in flux, in this world where people merge with place. “The storm clouds pass without gifting water and Rachel understands thirst for the first time and yet she never learns to wait until the night creek comes alive in the place where, during the day, only the lightest brush of growth signals the possibility of water. Rachel often finds herself in slot canyons where steep walls and sharp rims hide thunderstorms and their resultant confluence; water and rocks the size of couches, the size of fists, chase her down. She runs a lot in the desert; learning to climb to safety quickly.”
Fremont is a beautifully-written book, at times funny, often dark. And rewardingly strange.