Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Carrie Welton - a novel of New England tomboy

Salutations to all of you, Connecticut Commies!
In a mood for some nutmeg? Today's guest of honor is a fellow Connecticut Commie and Penmore Press author Charles Monagan. His novel Carrie Welton is set in Waterbury, CT.

Eighteen-year-old Carrie Welton is restless, unhappy, and ill-suited to the conventions of nineteenth-century New England. Using her charm and a cunning scheme, she escapes the shadow of a cruel father and wanders into a thrilling series of high-wire adventures. Her travels take her all over the country, putting her in the path of Bohemian painters, poets, singers, social crusaders, opium eaters, violent gang members, and a group of female mountain climbers. 

But Carrie’s demons return to haunt her, bringing her to the edge of sanity and leading to a fateful expedition onto Longs Peak in Colorado. That’s not the end, though. Carrie, being Carrie, sends an astonishing letter back from the grave and thus engineers her final escape—forever into your heart.  

My thoughts:
What sets Carrie Welton apart is the rarely used first person omniscient narrative. Rarely do you see a novel in which the title character not being the speaker. The same narrative model was used in Jack London's The Sea-Wolf and Nabokov's Lolita. The heroine of Charles Monagan's novel, Caroline Welton, becomes the object of fascination to Frederick Kingsbury, a dutiful family man with an equally dutiful and sympathetic wife. The Kingsburys become personally invested in the emotional and social well-being of the troubled girl next door, championing her independence and artistic growth. 

Tolstoy claims that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." While there are many variables that contribute to each family's dysfunction, and there are many creative ways people can sabotage their home lives, but, leaning on my personal experience, dysfunctional families have certain "key ingredients" in common. I've seen enough dysfunctional New England families. I've seen enough tyrannical fathers who make occasional cameo appearances just to stomp their feet a few times and bark. I've seen enough oblivious wives who seek validation by throwing lavish parties. And I've seen enough lonely children who bond with animals and neighbors than they do with their own parents.

Monagan paints a vivid picture of social anxiety and PTSD before those conditions were explored and labeled. His speaker, Kingsbury, maintains an outlook that is consistent with his era. There are references to the key Civil War battles, the draft riots in New York City, the Bohemian art scene. It's such a daunting task to keep the 21st century author and the 19the century speaker separate. There are so many opportunities for slip-ups and inadvertent anachronisms, and Monagan manages to avoid them all. The most impressive feat, however, is the exquisite, unobtrusive transition from first person limited to first person omniscient.  At some point the reader realizes that Kingsbury describes events that did not happen before his very eyes. In the first half of the novel, he is in close physical proximity to his protegee.  He pays painstaking attention to her body language, her smile, her features. After Carrie moves away, he continues to chronicle her adventures from afar, imagining what her daily life might have been. He feels her from a distance. At the same time, Kingsbury's fascination is refreshingly chaste. He does not devolve into a dirty old man who becomes obsessed with the vulnerable girl next door. I admit to having feared that the story line would head in the Lolita direction, but thankfully, it did not.

Apart from being a top-notch authentic historical novel, Carrie Welton is a commendable exercise in unorthodox narrative.

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