Maria Hummel's poetically rendered debut novel contains the stuff of great fiction: turbulent historical circumstances, tumultuous family relationships, and astute attention to detail. But while the carefully drawn settings and historical events in Wilderness Run entice the imagination, the characters in this novel are never fully developed enough to compel the reader emotionally.
The question of whether or not to help a fugitive slave to freedom is the first to divide 12-year-old Isabel and 17-year-old Laurence Lindsey, two cousins in the small town of Allenton, Vt., in the winter of 1859. Bel is still young enough to be influenced by her conventional, law-abiding father and is reluctant to help, but the Boston-educated and urbane Laurence is adamant about aiding the slave's flight.
The two are thwarted in their efforts, and other, deeper divisions follow: physical separation with the advent of the Civil War, and estrangement, not only from each other, but from their successful industrialist fathers whose train line forms the linchpin of Allenton's economy.
After Bel's father sends the slave back to his owner, she views him as fallible, even morally weak, and embarks on a slow, solitary quest to distinguish herself from him and from the rest of Allenton. When Laurence enlists in the Second Vermont regiment but refuses to train as an officer, an already formidable distance between him and his father widens.
When the son of a rich man goes to war, innocence leaves abruptly. By contrast, an Isabel secure in the family home and sheltered by her father's wealth takes the slippery path from adolescence to adulthood at a slower pace.
Even as their childhood fondness for one another transforms into a confusion of romantic and sexual feelings, Bel and Laurence drift farther from one another over the course of their separation. On their individual journeys each is given a puzzle piece to a family secret that will ultimately change their understanding of their parents, their station and their love for one another.
Hummel's skill as a poet is evident in her deftly crafted settings. The Vermont winters are described with a keen eye for the vicissitudes of light, the shape-shifting ice, and the burrowing cold that penetrates from skin to bone. Similarly, Hummel's vivid, eerie and violent wartime scenes dwell on the periods between battles when soldiers wait for the fighting to begin or bury the fallen.
Some of Hummel's best writing occurs toward the end of the book. When a semiconscious Laurence, wounded by rifle fire, is caught in a forest fire in the wilderness outside Chancellorsville, Va., Hummel notes, "He burrowed deep in the muddy bank. A damp, crumbling hair of roots cascaded over his eyes. He waited, listening to the screams belly through the woods and vanish, the crash of charred trees. His mouth tasted of soot and blood. Slow water dragged his scorched clothes away from him, his skin tightening where it was touched by flames."
Tellingly, his constant companion through the carnage is Walt Whitman--or at least, his potent words. From the first scene of Laurence with his regiment, sitting with his head bowed over a volume a comrade mistakes for a Bible, to the final scenes in a Washington, D.C. hospital for Union casualties, lines from "Song of Myself" waft in and out of the narrative. The poem's celebration of the beauty and dignity of the common man and woman sets a poignant tone that anticipates the weary sadness of the novel's conclusion.
Laurence's affinity for Whitman is juxtaposed with Bel's attachment to the poems of Marie de France, for the picture of romantic love they paint and the childhood nostalgia they evoke. The "Lay of Milun" particularly attracts her: In it, two married lovers use a swan to ferry messages to one another.
The stories mark another point of divergence for the cousins when Laurence later rejects Bel's gift of the book. But the contrasts between the open, embracing poetry of Whitman and the simple ballads of Marie de France reflect the tension between Laurence's expanding worldview and Bel's aloof existence in her aptly named Greenwood home.
Hummel possesses a fine an eye for detail. Still, her gaze doesn't linger long on her characters, who are sharply outlined but not given full expression. Instead of a cast of distinct individuals, the people in Wilderness Run suggest ideas of history, place, and class. Bel stands out as a unconventional woman largely because the other young women of Allenton, including her cousins, are so superficially depicted. Laurence, by far the most developed character, remains too emotionally inaccessible for the reader to feel more than cursory sympathy. It's a problem particularly noticeable in the secondary characters: Laurence's frivolous, status-conscious mother is contrasted with Bel's serious, independent mother. Soldiers in Laurence's regiment are distinguished by their roguishness, charisma or youthful awkwardness, but none is completely developed enough to draw the reader's empathy.
While Civil War history provides the context for the novel, it never truly informs it. We get all the right cues--Whitman, class and industrialization, battle sites, slavery and emancipation--but we never feel the weight of the times as fully as we might expect. Consequently, the story doesn't reveal narrative and historical continuity so much as a string of discrete chronological events through which the characters wander, reacting in largely predictable ways.
Laurence and Bel oppose slavery and their wealthy industrialist fathers favor the status quo. Bel's tutor joins the Union Army to prove his anti-slavery principles and his love for her. The soldiers of Laurence's regiment fall into line as staunch abolitionist, opportunist or hapless laborer. The genre of historical fiction lends itself to archetype, but cliched characters in cliched circumstances force Wilderness Run at points to the very brink of stereotype--and beyond. Mary, a superstitious Irish Catholic maid formed seemingly from boilerplate, provides an unfortunate early example.
Hummel creates an intriguing world of choice and consequence set against a richly textured historical backdrop. But at its close the main characters do not experience any truly novel revelations. Neither does the reader. Though often lyrical, this Wilderness Run leaves us winded, but still uncertain of the journey's worth.
Maria Hummel, former arts editor at The Independent, will read from her book Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. at Durham's Regulator Bookshop, and Saturday, Sept. 28, at 4 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.