Debut novelist Gregory Brown grew up along Penobscot Bay, and in “The Lowering Days,” he gives the area a fictional tweak that allows him to address issues of colonialism, property, myth and environmentalism. Set primarily in the 1980s, the book focuses on three families – one of which is a member of the Penobscot Nation – whose actions and attitudes have powerful repercussions for the residents of one tiny Maine town.

Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

“The Lowering Days” is narrated by David Ames, now a physician, as he looks back on events that occurred when he and his twin brother Link were 14 years old. Along with their older brother Simon, the boys have been raised with an affinity for the river that runs along the spine of the state. Their father, Vietnam War deserter Anoux, is an expert boat maker; their mother, Falon, publishes the local weekly newspaper, “The Lowering Days,” named for the times when coffins are buried. Both leave their sons pretty much to their own devices.

The seemingly idyllic existences of the Ames family are disrupted when someone burns down the bankrupt paper mill whose planned resurrection is supposed to be the economic kickstarter for the area. Falon receives a confession/manifesto from the arsonist, and she has to decide whether and how to publish it.

The perpetrator is a teenage Penobscot girl, Molly. She and her father escape to the woods, where they hide from the wrath of the townspeople who see their livelihoods snatched away. They find an abandoned residence, and begin to plan how to survive a winter there. Lobsterman Lyman Creel shoots at Molly when he sees her tampering with his traps, and that series of rash acts serves as a catalyst for revenge and inevitable tragedy.

Despite the fact he’s married to Falon Ames’s best friend, Lyman still carries a torch for the newspaper publisher. He also regrets the accidental death of Billy Jupiter, one of his rivals for the young woman’s attention, back in the day.

If its cast of characters sounds a little unwieldy, it is. But the lengthy list of dramatis personae emphasizes David Ames’s confusion as he attempts to understand the adult behavior around him, especially that of his father and Lyman.

Brown writes, “As a child in a small community you can feel the fault lines running beneath your family and other families. These invisible tension wires tie one adult to another. You tiptoe around them. You step over them. You don’t know why they are there, only that they are there, and that they are terribly dangerous things.”

“The Lowering Days” is all about what happens when you don’t watch where you’re walking.

Brown reaches back into Penobscot history and myth to remind the reader of the power of Maine’s native religions and the toxicity European settlers brought to the state’s shores. David remembers the giant frog monster that thousands of years ago gathered the headwaters for himself, letting the Penobscot people starve. Then the great hero Gluskabe felled a tree on the monster, and the tree morphed into water, and the people jumped in and became fish, turtles and seals, “ensuring that the Penobscot would forever be related to the river and its animals.”

That relationship could not save the natives from British merchants who paid colonists 40 pounds for the scalp of a Penobscot man, 25 pounds for that of a woman and 20 pounds for that of any youth under 12.

“The Lowering Days” is an engrossing family saga, richly imagined and sensitively rendered, attuned to environmental issues but avoiding didacticism. The novel may remind some readers of the work of John Irving, with its Downeast setting, Dickensian plotting, anti-war stance and the well-delineated family dynamics on display. (A bear even makes a cameo appearance, as they often do in novels by the author of “The World According to Garp” and “Setting Free the Bears.”)

Throughout “The Lowering Days,” Brown questions the meaning of property and inheritance. Who has the right to poison a river? What parts of the forest belong to someone other than the indigenous people? The novel includes many scenes of characters struggling with such questions about the provenance of items in their lives – a woodsy cabin, an abandoned home, an airplane even. To whom does anything belong?

Heartbreaking, gripping and compassionate, “The Lowering Days” mostly succeeds in its mission to mix family drama and ancient folklore. If some of David’s grand proclamations about life seem a little stiff and obvious, is it the fault of the author or the character? Much of the time it doesn’t matter. There’s enough narrative gusto here in the escalating conflict between Arnoux Ames and Lyman Creel to satisfy most readers.

Brown has made a creditable debut, a novel rich in style and incident.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: mlberry


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.