There are always events in our lives that seem to cause us to pause and sputter. We know we should move on or correct our lives because of those events but the shock still seems to cause us to dwell and ponder upon the effects of those events, even though we think we should move on. But eventually we do move on, even if we need to atone for our actions because of those events. And that is the theme that Valerie Mills-Milde documents in her novel After Drowning.
On the day Ben Vasco drowns, the lake is graduating shades of greys, browns, iridescent greens. No white caps. the sky is a definite blue, with slow, cheerful clouds pinned above the beach as if to a child’s felt board. A summer sky over a brooding lake, a coarse, sandy beach curled around the rim of the town, beginning at the painted oil tower and ending where the high, wind-eroded bluffs rise abruptly from the lake’s edge.
Pen watches Maddie scamper from the nearby gully, a plastic pink watering can clutched in her hand. She has on a purple two-piece bathing suit and her belly protrudes, round and tanned. She is small for a four-year-old, and still delicious, thinks Pen. A piece of fruit. Maddie has collected an odd assortment of beach objects: a tick, a seagull feather, five stones varying in size and colour, a worn piece of green glass. She has laid them out in a pattern, with the stones making a circle in the centre, and now she waters the strange collection as though watering a row of pansies, for the moment preferring this to wading.
Pen has chosen a thinly populated spot on the beach, close to where the grasses start, and a distance from the waterline where many families plash in the shallows. The beach, she notes remains remarkably unchanged since she grew up in this small fishing town. She makes the calculation: fifteen years of living away.
There is something unique about a story written from somebody who’s career is not just focused on literary endeavours. Valerie Mills-Milde is listed in the biography of this book as clinical social worker. And this story is filled with personal unease that is common among us that a reader cannot help but feel empathy with the characters. For me, the book was especially vivid seeing it was set in a port town near Lake Erie. I could easily relate to not only the settings but understand well the angst each of the characters feel as they witness the skillset they learned to earn a living become redundant. This was a complex read but definitely a read I could relate to on so many levels.
She stops reading. The article bears the hallmarks of a home editorial, just short of a rant. To her left, awkward and improbable and mounted on a pole, is a giant fiberglass model of a sturgeon. It is all spikes and teeth. A dinosaur. Port’s great hope. She looks at the lake, pinned down by a heavy layering of cloud. Port is difficult on days like these, the lake’s moods souring life in the town A septic place to live, and yet people persist.
Rod had persisted. Pen knows how bad off the fishing industry was back then, the lake poisoned by a steady seepage of phosphorous into its tributaries. Dead fish washed up on the beach. And the algae. Wherever the water was caught up in inlets, small coves, not worried by waves and currents, a green sludge formed on its surface. In 1969, before she was born, the waters of the Cuyahoga River, a faithful tributary of the lake, became so choked by petrochemicals it caught fire. The authorities had been embarrassed by the incident, pledging a massive clean-up, but the glory days of the commercial fishery were gone. There was nothing glamorous left in that life particularly here.
The memories of Rod that she carries are of a man who was not defeated or even worn, though she knows he must have been near exhaustion, getting himself out by five in the morning, working in all kinds of weather. When Rod tucked her in at night she wrapped her arms around his neck, his skin chafing reassuringly against hers. Although she can’t recall everything, she still holds a bone deep certainty that he loved her.
And there are vivid descriptions in this book. Not just of scenes and other visual items but especially of feelings and emotions. This was a book that was easy to sink into a read and develop empathy for the situations that many of the characters were going through. And that is a rare quality in many works of fiction these days.
They are comfortable people and completely gracious. Lea leads them into the house and Maddie immediately disappears into her room to change into a suit for a swim. “Hot, hot, hot…” she chants. The men slide out toward the back and Lea sets down two wine glasses on the stone counter, and opens a chilled bottle of Chablis. Pen knows that after she told him to leave, Jeff would have confided in Bill. If asked, Jeff wouldn’t have been able to provide and explanation for why they separated, and Pen feels certain that Lea and Bill believe she initiated it. Although they aren’t people to jump to conclusions about other people’s lives, she has wondered whether they have told Jeff to cut his losses.
Through the large glass doors, Pen can see Jeff and Bill standing over the barbecue, Jeff with a look of intense interest on his face, tossing out a comment to Bill who is nodding his head in agreement. Jeff has opened up two beers for them, taken from the fridge in the garden shed. Bill looks mellow, vaguely patrician, which Jeff is muscled and eager.
Valerie Mills-Milde has written and detailed and honest look at modern life and it’s cause/effect cycles with her novel After Drowning. It is reflective and thought-provoking and certainly a read worth pondering over. In any case a great piece of literature.