Earl Smith’s recent novel, “Head of Falls,” is a trip down memory lane in 1950s Waterville.
The story is told by Angela Jamal, a teenager in a working-class Lebanese family living in the heart of the city as it was 60 years or so ago. Much of Angela’s life is dominated by currents and events as typical to teenagers then as now — boredom at school, cranky teachers, uneasy peer relationships, rocky and tender home life, and a constant edgy quizzing of her surroundings to find out exactly who she is and where she fits in.
There are complications in this that are not necessarily typical, but not unusual, and they come and go from day to day, week to week. Her father is intermittently out of work, intermittently abusive. There are labor-management problems in the local mills, which vibrate out to the community and into families.
While finding the bearings to navigate all this in the summer of her 15th year (1954), Angela flees the house during a hurricane, wanders a bit from her neighborhood, and is taken in for a little while by an old man who somehow has escaped her notice. He helps her dry off, and she discovers in his house an old piano. “Mr. M” spots her interest, and offers to give her lessons. Angela has found a direction — music — and by the end of the book, she is addressed by Mr. M as “dear Angel.”
The central energy of the book arises from recollections of the time. Ahead of each chapter in which Angela’s narrative transitions to a new year, an objective voice jumps in to provide a summary of events and pop culture from the wide world. “Everything seems to move faster than ever before” is the book’s opening sentence, in the summary for 1954. We’re reminded of television’s novelty, the advent of Burger King, the Cold War, McCarthy; “new businesses are beginning to reshape the economic face of the nation.” In 1955, James Dean dies, schools are desegregated, Rosa Parks is arrested, and “the hourly wage rises from 75 cents to $1.” For 1956: The Andrea Doria sinks; the Soviet Union crushes rebellion in Hungary; Nat King Cole is attacked on stage in Birmingham; Maine’s leg of the federal interstate highway project will bend around Waterville in order to miss the Colby College campus. In 1957: Elvis gets drafted; the Dodgers move out of Brooklyn; in Waterville, “an Urban Renewal project will soon pave over much of the old charm of Main Street.”
In Angela’s narrative proper, details from Waterville’s past are constantly in play — Joseph’s Market, Temple Street, the Two Cent Bridge, “the old brick Opera House” where tickets for the high school’s production of “Guys and Dolls” are 50 cents, children 25. Angela, her friend Margaux and brother Gabe are skeptical of Franco-American spaghetti. They drink Tang, watch Jackie Gleason on TV and listen to Little Richard on the radio. Colby’s president is scheming to expand its liberal arts program, including music. Angela hopes to work for Al Corey someday.
It’s a cornucopia of postwar Waterville tidbits that is likely, if you sometimes find yourself waxing nostalgic, to feed your fires. It’s available from North Country Press.
Earl Smith, of Belgrade, is a retired dean of Colby College and the author of “Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College,” as well as two other novels, “The Dam Committee” and “More Dam Trouble,” both published by North Country Press.
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].