This was a really interesting book that was surprisingly relevant in terms of the bitter vitriol spewed on both sides of the political aisle over communism–much like today’s arguments over socialism and race. I wasn’t aware of the 1949 Peekskill riots, but the apparent flashpoint for the riots was the misrepresentation by the Associated Press (AP) of Paul Robeson’s comments at the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Conference in Paris. The idea of racial violence resulting from an unsubstantiated quote fabricated by an international news agency is appalling and reminiscent of the way people still cling to their own “truths” regardless of evidence.
I’m reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the history, geography, and/or people of that state. Right now we are in New York, where I’m trying to cover both upstate and downstate.
The Glass Forest by Cynthia Swanson takes place in both regions, with some bits in Door County, Wisconsin (a lovely and unique touristy area of that state, known for its cherries and its proximity to Lake Michigan). The main storyline occurs in 1960 in Westchester County, just north of New York City. Many people from (further) upstate consider Westchester County more a part of NYC, since many people who live there commute to the City for work, so it is sometimes included in what constitutes “downstate,” along with the City itself and Long Island. (Note that New Yorkers love to argue about where the dividing line is; this is a border dispute that’s been ongoing for at least my lifetime, and probably much longer than that.)
[Ruby] enters her family’s dense forest. All she hears are birds and insects and the occasional squirrel scurrying through the underbrush. Passing a thick-trunked oak, she taps it gently, then moves on. Ruby tramples along the narrow, barely perceptible path. She presses her threadbare gray-white tennis shoes into supple earth and soggy fallen leaves. Eventually she comes into a small clearing. She sits on a rock. A heavy, rut-topped boulder, two feet in diameter, two feet tall. A rock that’s slick with dew, embedded quartz chips sparkling in the late-morning sunlight that filters through the treetops.
The descriptions of the forest give the illusion of wilderness–broken by Silja’s observation that if she gets disoriented in her early evening walks she waits for the local street lights which border the woods to help her find her way. But despite being nestled in the midst of a community, the woods are large enough to hide a fair bit of dark and creepy activity.
The secondary timeline for the book–which tells the story of Silja’s life–takes place partly in New York City, as Silja grew up in the Finnish immigrant community there. Silja mentions the Alku, and I was able to find an article about it and other Finnish co-ops like it in NYC. I wish there had been more about the Finnish community and culture, but Silja mostly abandoned that part of her life when she married Henry.
I was a bit disappointed in the book overall. I was hoping we were going to hear about the after-effects of World War II–maybe a story about PTSD and how it affected men who served in that war and their families. And, to some extent, we did get that, but since the story is told from Silja’s point of view and not Henry’s, we only get an outsider’s take on his behavior and how much of it was due to the war and PTSD (and his physical disabilities). We get very little that allows us to have any real sympathy or understanding for him.
As I said in my intro, I was a bit surprised how closely some of the racist, misogynist, and anti-communist propaganda echoes that of today’s far right. In many ways this was a story that could have taken place today–with the exception of more progressive divorce laws. I don’t want to get too political here–and I’ve actually put off this review trying to be a bit more objective in my writing–but I was struck again and again by parallels.
Ruby was the most complex and interesting character, and I was kept guessing a bit as to her true nature and desires–whose side she was on. I was also a bit surprised by her choices at the end–not the final result, but rather her self-sacrifice.
Overall, The Glass Forest by Cynthia Swanson was an interesting read that left me unsatisfied, wanting more. For our reading challenge, though, it was a win in its descriptions of both Westchester County and New York City–both Brooklyn, where the Finnish Alku was, and other areas where Henry and Silja go while courting. This has not been my favorite choice for New York–that would have to be Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older or The Wedding Bees by Sarah-Kate Lynch–but it’s a solid choice. We have just a few more to wrap up in New York.