From the outset, I knew that reading In Caddis Wood by Mary François Rockcastle (who is the director of the creative writing programs at Hamline) was going to be a very adult experience. Not like going to a pornographic theater, or voting in a seminal election as a well-informed citizen of these United States; rather, I was going to encounter some honest-to-God adult themes, which, as it turns out, include psychological adultery, forgiveness, tragedy, and spousal neglect.
After all, In Caddis Wood (forthcoming this September from Graywolf Press) is about a sturdy marriage, the couple wealthy in both money and family, shaken by discovery and later tempered by devotion. This adults-only experience may have been more than I bargained for, however, confused and panicked by the revelation (shouldn’t I be over this?) that life isn’t fair. Well-written and stylistically sound (despite the irritating overuse of “russet” to describe the color of things), In Caddis Wood is a quick but heavy read.
The novel explores the marriage between Carl and Hallie Fens. Carl, a successful architect haunted by the ghost of his philandering father has spent much of his life focused on work and providing for his family rather than spending time with them while Hallie, a poet and teacher, anguished by the abandonment at an early age of her mother, forewent her creative work for much of her life choosing instead to be there for her children. Each chapter aligns the reader with either Carl or Hallie, a method that should draw the reader in to the middle of a husband/wife sandwich, but that I found to be dizzying, causing me to hold both narrators at arms length so I could get a better view of exactly what was happening.
There is a mess of things going on in this book. On top of Carl’s discovery that Hallie had an emotional affair with a man named Eugene years and years previous, during a rather rocky spot in their marriage, and later the family’s discovery that Carl is dying; in addition to recounting the death of a son-in-law, and the near-fatal accident which lead to a daughter’s crooked face; along with the sad letters left behind from the house in Caddis Wood’s previous owner and the bleak flashbacks of depressing parental encounters; the natural world around Caddis Wood, and in Minnesota at Pig’s Eye dump are all mucked up and deteriorating. The novel is a veritable hotbed of sadness, fuelled by tears rarely alleviated by the hope that things will be okay. Rather, we’re given the knowledge that life will just plod along leaving in its wake nothing but painful lessons and memories of a time when anything could have been. This is the adult part of the book.
Toward the end of the novel, when Carl is dying, and Hallie is changing his bedclothes and feeding him, all the while feeling both pain and perhaps happiness at her coming creative freedom (finally), I couldn’t help but find myself full of anger for Hallie, and how unfair it seems for her to make such a hefty amends for such an understandable wrongdoing. Then, in the midst of my heated fit about how unfair it all seems it dawned on me that the book isn’t really about their marriage. It’s about nature, and how it is impossible to control. Human nature, the natural world, these things are chaos, mediated only slightly by the nurturing we receive. “For a moment she watched useless, beating wings, marveling at the insects’ ignorance and tenacity, unable to figure out a way in or a way out—until she turns the light off and the struggle ceases. There is no stopping it, she tells herself.” In Caddis Wood nature has its plans, and hope arises mainly in those brief moments when those plans chance to intersect with ours.