As she swims at the lake above the old town, author Shelley Read is haunted by images of what lies below: the flooded Colorado town of Iola. And so seeds the idea for this marvellous book. From the outset, knowing from the cover notes that the town of Iola will soon make way for a new dam, my mind wanders, and I consider again the fate of a town closer to home – that of Cromwell in Central Otago.
The original town of Cromwell, once at the heart of the gold-mining boom, was flooded when the Clyde Dam was built. Its construction was completed in 1992, and the lake which backed up behind it in the following autumn absorbed in its watery grave 2000 hectares of farmland and orchards. On my frequent visits to the new Cromwell, I have often pondered the fate of those farmers and orchardists.
And so it is that I am immediately drawn into Shelley Read’s haunting story, inspired by the history of the drowned town of Iola. From the first kernel of her idea, Read has crafted a wonderful tale about a young woman living a sheltered but less than idyllic life as the only woman in a house full of men, all living on a peach farm in the 1940s. At 17, Victoria (Torie) has already seen a great deal of sadness. Her mother, beloved aunt and cousin have all died in a tragic accident; her brother Seth has gone rogue; and her uncle has returned from the war to live out his miserable life drinking whisky as he sits brooding in his wheelchair. And so, as she goes about the thankless tasks assigned to rural women of the day with little hope of any future change, Torie has only the farm animals for friends and the family’s legendary peach crop as a source of pride.
When she encounters a stranger in the township, she gives him directions to a boarding house; but is horrified to discover the following day that he has been banished from there because of his colour. Intrigued and offended, she offers him protection. Torie’s life is upended by their friendship, and she eventually finds solace from all of the bigotry and hatred she has encountered in the natural world. In the end, though, it is not the forests and streams that surround her but the familiarity of her peach trees which eventually save Torie from drowning in her own sorrows. When the floodwaters threaten to claim them; Torie hatches a plan which will save both the peach trees and her own life from its predictable fate.
The book follows Torie’s extraordinary life during more than 30 tumultuous years of American history, and it is refreshing to see this relatively recent history from the1950s, through the 1960s and finally to the more enlightened ‘70s, from a feminine viewpoint.
This book has all of the hallmarks of a classic, and I predict it will become as well-received as those beloved novels turned film classics: Fried Green Tomatoes; The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood and The Help.
Reviewer: Peta Stavelli