Book Review: Mary Francois Rockcastle’s Rainy Lake. Published by Graywolf Press.
Rainy Lake is more than a coming-of-age story of a young girl. There are all the traditional aspects of such a story including friendship, family issues, young love and experiencing new things, but that is not the depth of the story. Set in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Rainy Lake is flooded with issues of the Vietnam War and racism. Growing up in a family that encourages liberal ideas such as equality, anti-war and education for women, the pressure of mass thought throughout their community challenges the family on their beliefs.
Danny (Danielle) Fillian guides the reader through this first person narrative as an older woman looking back on her family’s summers at their lake cabin. The story begins with the family purchasing the lake cabin and progresses through an array of family, community and social political issues. The novel is rich of details that linger on your mind like the smell of lake water lingers on Danny’s first love, a black boy named Billy.
Rainy Lake is a story of opposing forces that bring light on the complications of life. The characters show us that taking actions to back up our beliefs will always meet resistance. The following are the forces I picked out throughout the book that work against each other to twist this young girl’s life into a story worth reading.
White vs. Black.
War vs. Anti-war
Belonging to a community vs. Holding true to individual beliefs
Financial security vs. Happiness/Freedom
Risk vs. the Comfort of Safety
Life vs. Death
Love vs. Lust
The present vs. The future
All of these forces are constantly working against each other. Many events occur that cause the family to put their beliefs into action but they often fall short, giving in to the peer pressure of their community. The only character who truly takes action in align with their beliefs is Danny’s brother, Brain. His actions always align with his beliefs in equality but eventually all of the opposing forces become too strong.
Walls crumble at the end of the novel. More issues arise within the family that builds tension and forces secrets. The relationship between Danny and Billy, the black neighborhood boy, becomes more complicated as he volunteers to go to war. A dramatic event at the end of the novel causes the family to reconsider everything they hold dear in their lives, including each other.
The structure of Rainy Lake smoothly narrates the reader through a seven year time span while skiping large sections of time. Each chapter (some more than 30 pages) covers the span of an entire summer and centers around a single event. (Example: The first chapter covers the summer of 1963 when the family finds and decides to buy the run-down house on Rainy Lake.) Covering 1963 to 1970, Mary Rockcastle exemplifies beautiful transitions in this novel where every chapter break skips seven to eight months. The centering of each chapter around a single event helps ground the reader in the present. It avoids overwhelming feelings from the long timeline or feelings of missing information from the winter months that Rockcastle skips. The fact that the summer cabin is a reasonable distance away from the family’s hometown also helps the flow of the story because we are aware that the summer months are the only time all the characters are all together in this setting. Rockcastle mentions Danny’s “school friends” just enough to let us know that they are not the same as her “Rainy friends.”
Point of View
Like any first person narrative, one must always consider the reliability of the narrator. Danny is a teenage girl, still being highly influenced by her peers and family. She sees the world through a veil, one that simplifies the world. More than once, Danny’s older brother vocalizes her ignorance. This is Rockcastle’s way of telling the reader there are problems that Danny is ignorant off and therefore, so is the reader.
Rockcastle also slips in brief snippets letting the reader know that Danny is narrating this novel many years after the events, as an adult. This could also cause a veil of time to distort the true events as the occurred. Even though I believe every first person narrative
should be taken into consideration, I frown upon spending too much time discussing the reliability. Reliable or not, we can only interpret and enjoy the story in the voice it was written and spending too much time on that takes away from the true essence of the story and the writing.
Because we see the story through Danny’s eyes, we don’t always notice how strange the young girl is. The details Rockcastle shares are well chosen and unique. Danny tends to categorize people by their smells, often mentioning how she smells lake water on the Billy’s skin. Danny also keeps a box of memories. One detail I think I’ll never forget is Danny keeping the condom from her first sexual experience, saying she is going to “press it first, like a corsage.” When Billy mentions how strange it is, she shrugs it off saying “I save all my important things. I have a box full of stuff: ticket stubs, invitations, dried flowers…Now I have this, too.”
“I think you’re a little cracked, Danny,” Billy said.
Any detail that sticks in a reader’s mind as this one has stuck in mine is a true writing success, no matter how far out of the box (no pun intended) one must go to get it.
The most impactful moment of the book comes near the end, in a meaningful exchange between Danny and her brother, Brian. The dialogue feels very real with sincere concern and quick bickering remarks like all siblings display. It is balanced with hopes for a bright future and secrets that could hold them back. When I finished the book, I immediately went back and reread this conversation between Danny and Brian. On the first read, it was powerful and demanded the readers’ attention. On the second, it slowed down the entire novel. It discusses the past, the present and the future. When reading it for the second time, I got the feeling that Danny’s brother knew something was going to happen and before it did, he wanted to tell his sister that she can be and do anything she wants in this life as long as she doesn’t let herself get in her way. This passage alone would make the entire book worth reading; it is that powerful.
Although I would not call Rainy Lake a “page-turner,” it is indeed a compelling story. The depth and width of topics covered is empowering and the feeling of the Vietnam War era is captured well, hovering over Danny as she grows into a woman. I recommend this book to all who love a complex tale of family and young love as well as those who love a book full of rich detail. As one of the cover quotes states, this novel will leave you with “the lingering smell of lake water.”
How I found this book: I was honored to have Mary Rockcastle, Director of the Hamline University Creative Writing Program, teach my Senior Seminar at Hamline. After gaining respect for her as a teacher and brilliant mind on the craft of writing, I couldn’t stop myself from picking up her book. Now, I have gained respect for her as a writer as well as a person. Thank you for sharing your knowledge—and your novel—with us, Mary.