In writing historical fiction, there seems to be a precarious balance: first, the novel must paint an utterly realistic portrait of the place and time, and second, it should also create a compelling narrative that fits seamlessly within that historical backdrop. Most novels in the genre are decidedly plot-driven, and for good reason, since the characters get caught up in a story much bigger than themselves, like the storming of the Bastille or the Battle of Bull Run. Most readers have an expectation that the characters will fit within the framework of recorded history, so rarely do we see truly character-driven narratives in the genre.
In the novel Red Rain (Knopf 2010), Bruce Murkoff creates a vivid and painstakingly accurate picture of the Hudson River Valley around Kingston during the summer of
1864. That achievement alone is commendable, and should entice any readers interested in Hudson Valley history. But more importantly, the author also somehow manages to create a character-driven story. Stories may be a better description, since the structure of the book may best be described as a quilt or collage, scraps of narrative threaded together to form a whole. The novel is structured not so much in chapters but in brief episodes, where the focus shifts constantly from character to character. Indeed, one could argue the most prominent character is the Hudson Valley itself, for Murkoff goes into great detail evoking the sights, smells, and sounds of the region. Consider this passage describing one character’s voyage up the Hudson from New York City:
Will was standing at the bow of the Ella May when morning broke over the Hudson. He drank from another bottle of Lowe’s medicine, no longer wincing with each sip, thankful for the burn of it as a stiff breeze rolled off the Catskills ...Will slept only a few hours, not deeply, aware of the sloop passing beneath the great expanse of the Palisades, which seemed to stretch forever along the western shore. For the last hour he’d been standing at the rail as the river began to straighten and widen, lying before him like some colossal snake, its surface made scaly by the wind. As the sloop passed the Morse estate just south of Poughkeepsie, the landscape began to look slightly familiar, like a memory just out of reach, and near the Rondout lighthouse this thought became so discomforting that he averted his gaze from what was at once recognizable and strange. (14-15)
If there is a main protagonist among the five or six principal characters drawn here, it is young Will Harp, a doctor returning to Kingston after years of experiencing the horrors of war firsthand. Will returns to his childhood home in hopes of returning to some modicum of normalcy after several years spent either in the saddle or on the battlefield. Will’s haunted dreams and childhood memories serve to deepen the story, showing us a history of Kingston without the author having to resort to extended passages of detached narration. Will’s story also includes the longest thread in the narrative quilt, the discovery of an ancient fossil; with help from other characters he pieces together the skeleton bit by bit, an act of community that becomes a metaphor for the progression of the book itself. Kingston of the 1860s is depicted as a hardscrabble place, one defined as much by the noisy commerce of the coming Industrial Revolution as the expansive wilderness of the Catskills that surrounds it. Each day a tangle of souls steps onto the Rondout pier from New York City: Irish and German immigrants, hucksters, war veterans, workers, runaways, and rubes. Some characters fall into stereotypes that readers may find too familiar—the hard-drinking, pugnacious Irish boy, for example, or the slippery snake-oil salesman that seems to inhabit any story set in the 1800s—but most characters do manage to surprise and engage us with their choices, making the point of reading less of what happens next and more of who happens. That’s a refreshing change from most entries in the genre, where the stories seem recycled from older works time and again.
Although the book is set during the summer months of 1864, the Civil War is a faint echo here. The focus remains on Kingston and the surrounding wilderness for most of its 329 pages. We are reminded most of the great conflict by those left behind who wait desperately for their soldiers’ return. And there is the veteran Will Harp, but the reader gets the sense that he is not ready to divulge the horrors he has seen, even in his dreams.
In Red Rain, his second novel, Bruce Murkoff creates a stunning and detailed landscape of what life must have been like in the Hudson Valley during the Civil War, although that landscape is admittedly Impressionist. Anyone who enjoyed Murkoff’s 2004debut,
Waterborne, will see the same fragmented structure at work here. As with Waterborne, another historical novel, based in Nevada during the Great Depression, new readers expecting a sweeping war epic along the lines of Margaret Mitchell or Clive Cussler will be disappointed. Here, the author is interested in something different, and he shows extraordinary craftsmanship and care in piecing together a vibrant portrayal of the history of the lower Hudson Valley.