“Leave a Crooked Path”

By Simone Paradis Hanson Shadowlight Press, Roswell, Georgia, 2016

162 pages, paperback, $10

In Simone Paradis Hanson’s novel “Leave a Crooked Path,” Claire Au Clair recounts the events of the summer of her 14th year. She and her mom, dad and little sister, Grace, live in a coastal Maine town that sounds a lot like Brunswick or Topsham, in a pretty typical suburban neighborhood of largely Franco-American families.

It’s a happy, aggravating place to live. The first significant event occurs when the neighbor, Mr. Bergeron, loses yet another finger (now he’s down to seven) to a lawn mower blade. In a different social or literary milieu, this incident might be drawn with solemn attention to the pain and irony of Mr. Bergeron’s apparent inability to learn not to try to free stuck mower blades with his hands. But instead, Claire’s disposition — true to the place and people — is wryly good-humored. Mr. Bergeron bleeds and suffers, to be sure, but the real point of the incident is less his clumsiness, and more the predictable reaction of Mrs. Bergeron, who we learn in the first sentence suffers from “Jumping Frenchman of Maine Syndrome,” or as Claire’s father terms such behavior, “Exaggerated Startle Response.”

“‘Throw me a towel!'” Mr. Bergeron screams. “‘Duncan Hines!’ she screamed back, hurling the towel into the air in his general direction and turning to run back in the house.” Someone in the neighborhood shouts, “‘For God’s sake, call an ambulance, he’s done it again,'” and people come pouring out of their houses to see what’s happened now — “pretty much every household was represented at the accident site.”

“This was Maine after all,” Claire reflects. “A place that sometimes felt more like an extension of Canada than a part of New England, where dumb Frenchman jokes were tolerated since it’s OK to make fun of yourself. It could be a rough place to live, but a place where no one passed a stalled car or stray dog.”

And the picture we get, really, is of a large extended family bound by proximity, ethnicity and overall good feelings toward each other. Except when the feelings are bad.

Claire takes care of her sister during the day while their parents are at work, and she spends a lot of time with her friend Celeste, with whom she frequently skirts the rules and who “could be disgusting.” When Uncle Romeo wants to help Claire’s dad prune a tree branch that precariously overhangs the roof, everybody gets nervous about the prospect of Uncle Romeo on a roof with a chain saw. They humorously figure out a dodge to the well-intentioned offer, but feel compelled to do something about the branch before Romeo tries. So Claire’s father calls the neighborhood handymen, the Menards, to come take care of it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but from there, things go bad for the neighborhood.

And especially for Claire’s family. Because slowly, deftly, it is revealed that her father is what we refer to as a mean drunk. And the second half of the novel discloses, in what is often quite beautiful writing on an ugly subject, Claire’s efforts to deal with him, internally and externally. “There’s a kind of worry that eats at you if you have a father that drinks. It’s like boot camp for bomb diffusers. One wrong move, cut the wrong wire, get lazy for a split second and it’s all over. An explosion will rip you apart.”

The depictions of harrowing, pathetic and irrational scenes are extraordinarily accurate to realities many of us have experienced. At the same time, the emotional tenor of the writing does not get sidetracked by the inherent pain. Claire’s fear, anger and confusion, which are palpable, are yet strongly colored by her perceptive good humor and love. Or is it the other way around?

“Leave a Crooked Path” is a skillfully paced, warm, painful, good-humored story, which will channel a sense of comfort and compassion, I imagine, for most people with experiences similar to Claire’s in their pasts.

Simone Paradis Hanson, who now lives in Georgia, grew up in Brunswick and is a graduate of Bowdoin College and the Maine School of Law. “Leave a Crooked Path” is available through online book sellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].