The Adirondack landscape of Lueza Thirkield Gelb’s memoir, Schroon Lake, is not the stuff of High Peaks travelogues and dark Romantic vistas. It’s well-groomed and meticulous, a place where homes have names—like Almanole, or The Big Place—and long, curling driveways. Where deviled eggs are cooled on lake ice and sofas swing on the porch. Boathouses, school buses, woodpiles as neatly stacked as porch furniture in the late fall—these are the vivid strokes that animate Gelb’s story, the lovely little details that helped this book win the Adirondack Center for Writing’s award for best memoir of 2007.
But under the light domestic chatter in the kitchen, the clack of croquet mallets on a velvet lawn, dark notes of tension were always ticking. And that lifelong tug-of-war between the domesticated, tightly wound little world of Gelb’s girlhood and the unmet needs of a restless patriarch generate a drama every bit as volatile as anything happening in the wilderness without. Family members in Schroon Lake nurse long secrets and unhealed hurts.
Some of these come to light at a Schroon Lake reunion of the author and her younger brother, Dwight, after their beloved mother’s death. It’s sorting-out time. Bags of old clothes, worn tools, old furniture go to the dump. For the writer, this stuff is charged with sentiment—the work gloves that still hold the shape of her father’s wide, competent hands—but for her brother, long detached from the old home, it’s junk, and he hates it. Did she—the favored child, accommodating, quick to please—know happiness at Almanole? For him, it was hell. Was her father an attentive, decent, well-intended parent? His father—same man—was a liar, skinflint, bully and philanderer. And their sister Maia’s story is not much brighter. Ever the odd girl out at home, she broke away, married a Catholic from New Jersey—an Italian!—and had seven kids. It was as sharp a break from her “gold-standard, rock-ribbed” Republican Protestant past as what Dwight sought when he “went native” and fell in with the sons of lumberjacks, schoolbus drivers, road workers.
Is there something about the Adirondacks that drives splinters of ice into the hearts of dads? Gelb’s Schroon Lake is the third Adirondack memoir I know to feature an emotionally elusive father who manages to saddle a child with enough anxiety and need to swamp a lifeboat. Not that these literary fathers are cut from the same cloth. Schroon Lake’s patriarch “E.B,” priggish and perennially aggrieved, is no more kin to the determinedly hopeful father of Adam Hochschild’s acclaimed memoir, Half the Way Home, than he is to the ponytailed Peter Pan of Micah Perks’ childhood memoir, Pagan Time.
Except for the cold factor. Charismatic they may be, but these fathers are also, to a man, withholding and remote. A few more guys like these on the bookshelves, and we can talk about a new Adirondack archetype: The Missing Dad. Where is he? Is he ever gonna come out and play? Notice my good grades? My nice manners? How much I adore him? The answer’s no, no, and no again, and what makes these books compelling and excruciating is not so much the yearned-for, dreaded tipping point when the memoirist finally gets it, but what happens then. In novels and on the screen, the script is formulaic: Revelation leads to enlightenment, enlightenment to action, change, relief. In life, it’s not so simple.
Gelb, 75, is very gutsy. She doesn’t ask us to love her father; indeed, knowing what we learn, we can’t. She only asks us to accept her love for him as helpless and sustaining. And it’s a challenge. The formula has failed. Not only is the writer unmoved by the revelations of her father’s darker side, she seems rather to resent them, and to find their claim on her sympathies intrusive. Her brother writes her an angry letter about a day long ago when his father beat him up, and in response she scrawls a note, “Sorry!”—and leaves it at that, quick to blame “our training” (silence, embarrassment, repression) for the throwaway response. She regrets not having been “able to shift Dwight’s opinion so he’s not so judgmental.” But why? Why shift anything? For whose sake—his or hers?
Schroon Lake starts with the sentence “Dwight is wrong.” An interesting beginning, this emphatic disavowal of a younger brother’s memory, and the author hastens to explain herself. “He believes what he believes, but I know that what I remember is as true as what he remembers.” Problem is, if both versions of the past are true, what makes Dwight’s one wrong? What does wrongness have to do with it? “I know he’s not lying. I know everything he told me happened to him.” And yet, she would have her version of the past and her brother’s occupy parallel, nonintersecting universes—except for the despotic insistence that hers come out on top: “Dwight is wrong. I take this as my adage.”
This may be the most beguiling thing about this uneasy memoir. Not the author’s childhood so much as her own apparent determination to subvert her own goal: to “try to see … the people who shaped me, as fully rounded as I can; [to provide] a deeper and more sympathetic vision.” That goal is good—as laudable as a daughter’s need to protect and defend the memory of a beloved parent. But having it both ways is hard, and the long strain shows.