Online Edition: Winter 2004

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The Green Age of Asher Witherow

M. Allen Cunningham

Unbridled Books ($24.95)

by Kris Lawson

A lyrical book about a brutal childhood, The Green Age of Asher Witherow spins a deceptively simple tale from a language as delicate as lace. Told from the point of view of an old man looking back on his childhood in a California mining town, the book achieves a geological resonance with its setting: shot through with veins of memory, crushed by layers of feeling.

In the late 19th century in Nortonville, California, the title character and his family lead a harsh existence, narrowly confined within the boundaries imposed on them by their society and the boundaries they set on themselves. Asher's parents, David and Abicca Witherow, are Welsh emigrees, and their California has no gold rush or quick fortune—only the Black Diamond Coal Company that employs the men and boys of Nortonville, owns their houses, and sells them groceries, clothing and fuel.

When she finds herself pregnant, Abicca feels she is possessed by a demon; she is only calm after her husband reads Bible verses to her. Stubbornly conventional in some ways, Abicca nonetheless allows the estranged wife of the town's founder, now outcast for her skills in midwifery and herbalism, to deliver Asher, which the aged narrator considers "a good name for someone born in the night amid culm banks and black-water drainage bogs." In actuality, Asher is a Biblical name that means "blessed" or "happy." But from the first Asher is literally a creature of the ashes; as a small child he plays in the slithering piles of rocks left over from the mine's processing, where his mother urges him to search for lumps of coal for the family's stove:

The culm banks were known to shift without warning. A child picking coal always hazarded stumbling into some disguised cavity, unsettling the whole mound, and ending up entombed under the chunks of slag, all air squeezed off overhead. The company had issued plenty of warnings to this effect—tales of boys gobbled up in the dumps for their thievery, as if by the unforgiving mouth of justice. But always leery of the company's tight-fistedness, mother saw straight through the moralistic pretext of such warnings and relished the subversion of sending me out with an empty pail.

The Witherow family leads a structured life, punctuated only by Abicca's migraines, during which she becomes a "stone" and Asher and his father creep quietly out of the house. Despite her pragmatism and strong adherence to Christianity, Abicca tells her son Welsh fairy tales, which to him are as much a part of the world around him as the stories of Nortonville's founders and the history of the mine. David Witherow brings part of the mine home with him every evening, as he arrives covered in the black dust that is slowly coating his lungs as well. After Asher is old enough to become a "breaker boy," picking out slate from the coal chutes, his father allows him to work but is disappointed in his son's content in being a miner. "No man's fitted for it," he says. "We endure. Me and all those men."

As in many classic works of literature, in this novel a character's name is usually revealing of that character's personality. Thomas Motion, a small boy who befriends Asher, is always in action, pelting rocks at the boss as the two boys work together in the mine or running from behind in the darkness and knocking Asher to the ground. Thomas envies Asher's calm; Asher would like to see in the dark like Thomas. In a strange bargain, Asher shows Thomas how to be still under the lash of the boss' whip and bear his punishment without showing emotion. At night, Thomas pulls Asher through the darkness, trying to get him to sense the objects around him, the shape of the earth under his feet, until he can navigate as well as Thomas. The first time Asher actually manages to accomplish this nightwalking, he and Thomas go too far, and Thomas disappears.

Concerned townspeople blame the boy's disappearance on Josiah Lyte, the minister's young assistant. Sharing his name with a Biblical king famous for religious reform, Josiah has more than a few pagan sensibilities that unsettle and finally outrage many in the congregation. Asher meets him at the first funeral he attends, that of a boy killed in the mine. He thinks Lyte is unearthly: "he had a peaked look like a revenant: dark hair and pale eyes and a face of angular, jittering features." Lyte treats Asher almost as a contemporary, lending him books and talking to him about the Hindu religion, which he experienced as a child of missionaries in India. But by smiling during funerals and evincing other odd behavior, the young minister has stepped outside the boundaries and Abicca, among others, cannot accept him.

Lyte, not surprisingly, acts a beacon for attention; Asher is not suspected of any involvement in his friend Thomas' disappearance because Lyte has attracted all the suspicion. Asher's other friend Anna Flood also lives up to her name; like a torrent of water, she flows easily into Asher's life and takes over his waking thoughts. Appearing only at night, encased in her mother's giant cloak, Anna becomes central to Asher's development and maturity, his connection to the earth.

M. Allen Cunningham has divided his finely wrought debut novel into sections, charting Asher's evolution from "blood" to "bone" to "ash" and finally to "earth." As Josiah, Thomas, and Anna come into Asher's life, each sets off a series of events that pushes him along like a tide, finally setting him outside the physical and mental boundaries of Nortonville. Like the piles of culm Asher picked over as a child, the layers underneath the surface of his life shift to produce a traumatic change and finally emerge in a new landscape.

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Winter 2004 Table of Contents