- Season of Water and Ice, and: Beautiful Piece
Founded with the mission of "enhancing the cultural landscape of the Midwest by offering a forum for publishing dynamic, original voices of literary fiction," Switchgrass Books is the new imprint of Northern Illinois University Press, and its director, J. Alex Schwartz, hopes to see it become an indispensable source of "high-quality regional novels for those who live in or are captivated by the Midwest." Although open to veteran writers, Switchgrass is committed to developing fresh talent, and it will not accept manuscripts from agents.
In fact, its inaugural two volumes, published in the fall of 2009, are both first novels. Donald Lystra's Season of Water and Ice is by far the more traditional of the pair and clearly conforms to its publisher's interest in offering works "grounded in the region," having been named a Michigan Notable Book in 2010 and also awarded the honor of Best General Fiction from the Midwest Independent Publishers Association. Locked in time—the fall and winter of 1957, when Sputnik had just been launched, the anxiety of imminent atomic attack seemed omnipresent, and American women were growing increasingly restless about traditional family structures—the narrative is just as firmly rooted in place, a northern Michigan backwater resort (deserted by its summer residents) and the rural towns nearby. The clothes people were then wearing, the music they were hearing, the cars they were driving, and other mundane details of their lives are meticulously documented by the first-person narrator. But this is also a world, as the title of the novel suggests, where natural elements and the change in seasons can have profound and immediate effects on incident and character. In one of his many encounters with the natural world, for instance, the narrator examines his need to share the emotional impact of
how the wind died in the evening and the lake became perfectly flat and mirrorlike and the shadows of pine trees crept slowly toward the water's edge like stalking animals; and how you could go out to the marsh at dusk to watch the sandhill cranes returning to their nest, see them flying back high in groups of two or three or four and then dropping out of the sky so fast it almost took your breath away.
The narrator of the this passage is a fourteen-year-old boy, but as its evocative style reveals, the events are seen in retrospect from the distance [End Page 151] of the adult he will become, and although the novel is advertised as a "coming-of-age tale," it is only partly so, since the story is not primarily the narrator's, who initially acts only as an observer of the complicated and, for him, often indecipherable lives of those he knows and encounters. Eventually, though, he finds himself entangled in their affairs—if only to complicate them even more—and, in the process, learns much about the fragility of love, human relations, and an existence in which "things took you by surprise and blotted out your old life piece by piece, replacing it with another life that was completely different."
Two major plot lines run through the novel. The first involves the disintegrating marriage of the narrator's parents, a dissolution precipitated by the father's decision to uproot the family from its relatively secure middle-class home in Grand Rapids for a more independent but precarious existence in the woods of northern Michigan. The second concerns his neighbor, Amber Dwyer, an impetuous teenager, a few years older than the narrator, whose pregnancy has forced her to drop out of school and confront some serious life-changing decisions. The narrator becomes attached to her, and although she seems at times far too wise for her age and deprived background, the two form an appealing pair as they learn from and teach each other and together try to deal with a situation whose difficulty is compounded by the fact that the father-to-be is a volatile bully, prone to violence.