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Onyx reviews: The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards

Many authors establish a geographic niche, a part of the world that is theirs (and often theirs alone) to explore and reveal. For David Adams Richards, it's the rural Miramichi region of New Brunswick in Eastern Canada. In every sense, it is a small community, known primarily for salmon and trout fishing, and for its forestry industry. As a former native of the area, Richards understands the soul of the people. He gets inside their skin and puts on their vernacular and concerns without effort.

The title of his latest novel sounds dire and pessimistic: The Friends of Meager Fortune. It helps somewhat to learn that Meager Fortune is the name of a character in this mid-20th century tale—but the book is still a tragedy of Shakespearean or Greek proportion.

The identity of the book's narrator is concealed until the closing sections. For the most part, he seems omniscient; however, he occasionally reveals how he learned certain elements of the legend. He sounds like a man with a vested interest in the details—more than a detached historian.

The Jameson family is one of three lumber dynasties in the area at a time when the old ways are dying. Each winter, foresters hew trees the girth of three men with saws and axes, transport the logs to tributaries by horse and sledge, and ride the booms down the river to the mill when the ice melts in the spring.

Within a decade, chainsaws and trucks will transform their arduous lives and many of them will not survive the change. The impending arrival of unions is just one of many rumors of change in a book where rumors shape reality.

Life in the woods is grueling. Allegiances and affiliation in the community go back generations, to the extent that someone can be identified as an Estabrook man or a Sloan man by the way he speaks. Adams effectively describes the harsh conditions as men spend frigid months cloistered in lumber camps away from family and friends, working a job where a momentary lapse can be deadly. They live in close quarters, so trivial disagreements get blown out of proportion. Men who become ostracized are "sent out"—if they can make their way out of the woods in the heart of winter.

For the most part the men are oblivious to what's going on back home—little news trickles into or out of the camp during the cutting season. They live to work. Many of them have never been outside the community, though the wood they hew may be destined to construct the oak desk of a politician or other great man.

After the death of the patriarch, a new generation of Jamesons inherits the business—brash, confrontational older Will and quiet Owen, the intellectual. Even at sixteen, Will is equipped to handle the job with a strong, ruthless hand. He inherited the respect both the workers and the community had for his father. The latter is as important as the former. Petty cruelty and gossip run through the town's veins like blood. A rumor—idle or carefully crafted—can ruin a person's reputation. A hero one day can become a pariah the next. People know that one way to pull themselves up is to drag someone else down.

Fate deals the Jamesons a cruel blow when Will is killed freeing a logjam, a fate foretold by a Micmac seer who, on the day of Will's birth, said he would be powerful and respected but his brother would be even greater and yet he would destroy the Jameson legacy through his rashness. Will made the controversial decision to send out a disloyal but popular worker earlier in the day, so his death is met with mixed feelings.

The business falls to Owen, who is more interested in Yeats and James Joyce than lumber. He is in love with a young socialite who barely knows he exists. When World War II intervenes, Owen enlists with the hope that he might be killed and thus avoid the responsibilities that await him back in New Brunswick.

At the end of the war, he has a Victoria's Cross medal, a painful leg wound that never heals, and a reputation as a hero. He rambles around Europe for months to put off returning to Canada, and is bound from Halifax for Montreal (bypassing the Miramichi) when he's coerced into leaving the train for a local celebration. As it turns out, he should have followed his intuition—once he returns home, his life begins a downward spiral, as does those of people around him. He should have paid more attention to the lessons of Thomas Wolfe.

Owen supposedly saved Reggie Glidden, his brother's best friend, in France. The same brush that paints Owen as a hero brands Reggie a coward for needing a scrawny bookworm to rescue him, so the former Jameson "push" (the camp foreman) leaves his wife ahead of Owen's return, even though he has two job offers—one from Owen and another from a rival.

Owen falls under suspicion when Reggie disappears. Owen's childhood crush, now a bitter woman afflicted by a stroke that robbed her of her beauty and social position, starts a rumor that he's having an affair with Reggie's wife, Camellia. The rumor has dramatic irony in that it claims Owen and Camellia met in the same cave where Camellia's father caught her mother cheating and subsequently killed her. Camellia is branded with the scarlet letter, even though Owen and she shared only two chaste kisses. The rumor quickly takes on the air of historical fact. No one doubts it.

To keep the business from collapsing, Owen sends his men to Good Friday Mountain, a dangerous tract of land far from civilization. The name of the site is hugely symbolic—the book's climax takes place on Easter weekend, during the final days of the cut. The route from the lumber camp to the river is harrowing, straight down the mountain via a trail known as the devil's back, which has a sharp turn at the bottom. A single misstep will spell disaster for the teamsters. However, if the men survive the winter, the feat will elevate them to the ranks of legendary loggers like Paul Bunyan. They have to battle more than the elements, though—Owen's rivals scheme to steal a large part of the cut by turning one of the loggers against his colleagues.

When a body is found floating in the river, everyone assumes it is Reggie Glidden. With nothing but rumor and innuendo against them—but in this community that is more than enough—Camellia and Owen face a trial that will determine the fate of a dynasty.

If the citizens of Newcastle form the Greek chorus in this tragedy, Meager Fortune is the story's conscience. Few people know that his wife and child died in a fire while he was serving in Europe—he speaks about them as if they are still alive. Meager is the camp's keeper, overlooked by many as a simple man, though some say he killed over a dozen enemies during the war, four with his bare hands. He understands the famine of the soul that comes to people who fall prey to the vicissitudes of rural life. In that way, he is the voice of the author (though not of the narrator), establishing the book's themes through the way he handles other, less altruistic characters.

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