Shaw puts place at the heart of his new novel
BRISTOL — When Christopher Shaw moved to the Adirondacks in 1969, he was looking for something that had been unavailable to him growing up in the suburbs of Schenectady, N.Y. — the kind of intellectual life that arises from, and in turn influences, a region’s sense of “place.” In a 2007 New York Times article about hiking the same Adirondack mountain the American philosopher William James had hiked in 1898, Shaw put it another way:
“My own experience in nature had made me curious as to how places as much as cultures could produce distinctive expressions of thought and art.”
That particular curiosity, which persisted through Shaw’s backwoods days in the “hard and gnarly” Adirondacks of the 1970s, his stint as editor of Adirondack Life magazine in the 1980s, and two decades of teaching at Middlebury College, forms one of the central philosophical concerns of his novel “The Power Line” (Outskirts Press, 2020). “I wanted the reader to feel not only that the book was based in geographic and historical actuality, but also the feel the experiential nature of the (time periods) I wrote about,” said Shaw, who lives in Bristol. “It was important to show things taking place in an actual but actually re-imagined place.”
The question that drives the plot of “The Power Line” has to do with an alleged shootout between bootleggers in a place called Donnelly’s Corners in 1929. The answer comes out slowly, a half-century later, when regional historian Martin St. Abel sits down with Adirondack old-timer Lonnie Monroe and hits the record button.
Monroe recounts a series adventures with the fiddler Fran Germaine, as they worked for Paul Smith’s Electric Company, and for a gangster named Legs Diamond. Later in the book William James himself makes an appearance, in the recollections of one of his former students, whose journals corroborate Monroe’s story.
Much of the novel “comes from stuff I remembered hearing or stuff I read,” Shaw said. “When I edited Adirondack Life I’d get these letters from people who used to live there but now they were living in California or wherever — these were mostly old people who had great memories and great stories to share. That stuff was very useful.”
Shaw also mined his experiences sitting at bars with old-timers. “I was that guy in the 1970s, listening to those stories,” he said. “I was asking myself, ‘How can I get my hands on a reel-to-reel tape deck, because if somebody doesn’t, all of this will be gone.”
Geographic and historical mapping were of the utmost importance to Shaw as he was crafting the novel, he said, but he did take some liberties with places and dates — so much so that he thought it prudent to include a Note to the Reader: “Those who know the region will find numerous anomalies in its history and geography,” he wrote. “As the Pragmatists showed us, however, the representation of reality is a very dicey proposition and bound to illuminate the character of the maker and consumer alike. We should engage it always with equanimity and a cold, hard eye.”
Shaw had expected some grumbling from “the usual suspects” about various instances of poetic license in his novel, but he didn’t get any from Tony Hall, a lifelong Adirondack resident and editor of the Lake George Mirror. “The next time someone asks me for the best single book about the Adirondacks — social, economic and natural history — I will recommend this,” Hall told Shaw in an email Shaw shared on social media.
High praise for a novel that sat in a drawer for 15 years.
Shaw wrote “The Power Line” in 2004, a few years after the publication of his critically acclaimed “Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods.” But he set the novel aside when the path to publication began to look too complicated.
Then he forgot about it.
After he retired from Middlebury College in 2018 Shaw pulled it out again. “I was expecting to hate it the first time I reread it, but I didn’t,” he said. “Often when you create something you can see the wires holding it up. But after 15 years the wires had faded from view.”
“The Power Line” is one of three books Shaw has written about the Adirondacks (a fourth is in progress). With the help of designer Pamela Fogg and editor Jennifer Kiewit, it’s the first one to get published. He has also written a number of shorter pieces about the region, which have appeared in literary journals, magazines and newspapers.
Altogether, his work, which is suffused with great intelligence but not burdened by it, has both arisen from and in turn influenced the place he loves so well, and he has helped to create the very thing he went into those woods to find 50 years ago.
Copies of the “The Power Line” are available for sale at the Vermont Book Shop.