“The Road to Dalton,” Maine writer Shannon Bowring’s debut, begins with an invitation of sorts. “Imagine this: You are driving alone on a road in Northern Maine,” the prologue opens, and it goes on to describe the route you would take to arrive at the fictional Dalton, a town in the real Aroostook County. There is love here from the very start, a love for Northern Maine, the County, and the people who inhabit it, and it is neither saccharine nor patronizing.

The tender, meandering novel follows a few characters closely even as a much larger cast inhabits the background of each distinct and discreet chapter, making Dalton feel especially real as well as, in some ways, insular.

The first major characters to be introduced are Richard Haskell, a doctor who runs the town’s one clinic, and his wife, Trudy Haskell, the local library’s director. It’s New Year’s Eve, 1989, and they’re getting ready for a party at the Fraziers, the longtime owners of the lumber mill that employs some half of Dalton. A few weeks before, the Haskells were in a fender-bender with another married couple, Nate and Bridget. Technically, no one was hurt, but the stress of the accident sent Bridget into early labor; on the night of the party, Bridget – who is the Fraziers’ daughter – is visibly exhausted, a new mother still recovering from her cesarean delivery. Halfway through the party, Richard leaves to go to his clinic and take care of Rose, a young mother with two children and an abusive fiancé.

This first chapter introduces several of the conflicts and narratives that unfold over the book. One is Richard and Trudy’s complicated marriage, in which the former serves for all intents and purposes as a beard for the latter, who some years earlier fell in love with her best friend, Bev Theroux. Another is Rose’s struggles with her fiancé, whom she feels she can’t leave. A third is Bridget’s mental health, which Richard considers asking her about but decides against. After all, “as all Mainers know, caring is one thing; prying is quite another.”

The next chapter explores yet more characters: Bev and her husband Bill, who are Nate’s parents; an elderly woman, Nora, who lives in the retirement village that Bev runs; and Nora’s son Roger, who is moving back to Dalton after many years in Portland, along with his much younger wife, Alice. Having this many characters to keep track of might sound difficult, but the networks of kinship, friendship and neighborliness become easier to follow as the names repeat across chapters, so that a reader can feel like a visitor From Away who is getting to know the town one small yet momentous event at a time.

Secrets abound in Dalton, and some things are swept under the rug. It’s clear to many, for instance, that Rose is being abused, but when her fiancé becomes belligerent on what is supposed to be a pleasant date night, Rose sees a nearby family of diners react: “She catches a glimpse of the mother shaking her head, the father half-rising from the booth before the wife lays her hand on his. ‘Not our circus,’ Rose hears the woman mutter to her husband.”


Richard – who bears both the privilege and burden of confidentiality, meaning he’s everyone’s secret keeper – is the only one who talks to Rose about the abuse, but that’s not to say he’s infallible. In fact, the latter half of the book is concerned with the ripple effects of a suicide that Richard blames himself for, although he’s far from the only one doing so.

There is both comfort and danger in the way Dalton residents maintain a slight, polite distance even as they both know and care about one another deeply. For Trudy and Bev, things are much easier this way. Everyone in town accepts them as best friends, and both are married to men who, in different ways, give them the space and privacy necessary to pursue their romantic relationship. For Nate, though, who is a rookie cop, there is a deep sadness and frustration in learning the dirty secrets of policework, that “in Dalton, husbands beat wives and get away with it. In Dalton, parents neglect and mistreat their children. In Dalton, mothers finish a fifth of vodka and intentionally crash their cars into telephone poles out on Route 11. And these are people Nate’s known his whole life.”

Small town life is never as idyllic as Hallmark movies like to pretend it is, but for all its faults, for all the pain its residents feel, Dalton is also a community where people look out for each other, where a lonely boy gets sent to help a crotchety woman with her gardening and finds joy in the earth, where a woman can whisper her gratitude to the man who beat up her abusive fiancé, where artists create beauty inspired by the land. “The Road to Dalton” is a book to sink into, and invites you to stay a while rather than rushing toward the road out.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel “All My Mother’s Lovers.”

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