- Nowhere Near Moloka’i
Cunningham plunges fearlessly into history and the supernatural in this debut novel about a boy's troubled growing up and coming of age in an 1870s California coal-mining town. As the book's epigraph confirms, the "green age" of the title comes from Dylan Thomas's famous poem, "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower," and Cunningham's story is every bit as lush and infused with Welsh strangeness as Thomas's own work.
Asher Witherow grows up in the mining boom town of Nortonville, California, and at an early age follows his father into the mines, where he must learn the trade by working as a breaker boy for several years. In the evenings he attends a school for the miner children taught by the young minister-in-training, Josiah Lyte, whose eccentric manner and attraction to Eastern religions (Lyte spent much of his childhood in India) raise both eyebrows and hackles among the town's traditional Welsh Congregationalist population.
Asher is a familiar literary type, the sensitive but comparatively ordinary first-person observer/narrator—Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Pip in Great Expectations or Jack Burden in All the King's Men—around whom strange events swirl, and who seems to magnetically draw vital and remarkable companions. Among the unusual people Asher attracts are Lyte himself, who takes a particular interest in Asher as a student and quickly recognizes his ability to see through the ordinary to the supernatural forces beneath. Asher also sparks the interest of a mysterious and strong-willed girl named Anna Flood, who becomes his confidante, and of another young miner boy, Thomas Motion.
Asher's friendship with Thomas is the catalyst for the snowballing events of the novel. Thomas finds it difficult to bear the harsh discipline sometimes inflicted on the boys in the mine; stoic Asher is much better able to take punishment without wincing. In exchange for learning the secret of Asher's endurance, Thomas offers to teach him his own peculiar ability—a magical gift of seeing in total darkness. They take to haunting the hills surrounding Nortonville after dark, and their nighttime training sessions soon lead to a tragedy. Only Asher knows the truth of what has happened. In deciding whether to hide or reveal this information, Asher is unwittingly changing the courses of several lives—Lyte's, Anna's, his mother's, his own—and even to some extent the course of Nortonville's history.
Told retrospectively, by an aged Asher, the story is emotionally potent and historically convincing. The hard lives of the miners are re-created in impressive and authentic detail, as is the landscape of the Diablo Valley, where the story is set (not surprising, since the author has been a resident of the valley for many years). The most alluring characters are the young minister, Lyte, and the gentle but hard-headed Anna. The reader sometimes wishes that Cunningham had given both of them more of the story and spent comparatively less time on Asher, who in many ways is a better onlooker than he is a character.
This is a mood-driven book; plot takes a back seat, and the reader also occasionally wishes for more [End Page 207] narrative thrust—a little of the driving "force" from the epigraph. But the bold re-creation of an "exotic" place and time in American history is a real achievement for a first-time novelist. The novel deserves the generous critical praise it has received so far.