A historical novel, set largely in upstate New York’s Adirondack Park, about the troubled lives of real-life real estate investor William West Durant and his embittered sister, Ella.
Myers (Castles in the Air, 2016, etc.) continues the story of the Durants in this third book in her Durant Family Saga trilogy. Thomas C. Durant was a railroad magnate who lost a fortune and died under a cloud—and intestate—in 1885. His son, William, assumed control of the family’s remaining assets and began new real estate and construction ventures in the Adirondacks. His sibling, Ella, who was somewhat of a bohemian, always felt financially shortchanged and ill-treated by her older brother—which caused litigation between the two. In the novel, told in the form of reminiscences of various characters, readers follow the arc of William’s career from his early days as a high roller (starting in 1892) to his impoverished life as an old man (circa 1931). In the end, not only has William lost all of his own wealth, but also money and land that Ella won in her final lawsuit—so they both end up losing. However, as William wrote to a friend in 1932, “I am poor, but I am happy, what more can most of us expect?” Myers writes with skill and has chosen well in deeply researching the Durant saga, which remarkably parallels Greek tragedy. It’s a truly engrossing story, and Myers does it justice. William is effectively portrayed as being more clueless than anything else, as he honestly doesn’t understand that he is treating his sister—and his wife, for that matter—very badly. He’s also obsessed with his camps in the Adirondacks, giving readers the impression that he sees the whole park as his personal fiefdom. That’s likely the reason why Myers uses the very clever gambit of telling the story from the perspective of William in his old age, when he’s “calm of mind, all passion spent,” and being interviewed by wealthy Harold Hochschild, who now owns William’s old camp, Eagle’s Nest. To compare William to the aged Oedipus is not so great a stretch.
A well-wrought, classically inspired riches-to-rags tale.
An Amish family came out of the train station. They marched in a line, Father, Mother, son, two daughters; plodding along with their hats and bonnets, coattails bobbing, skirts swishing along the sidewalk. It struck me as odd to see them there of all places, (as if the Amish don’t need or use modern transportation) even though there are several Amish communities in the Finger Lakes region where I live. But I still couldn’t help but wonder: where were they going? No van was waiting to pick them up, the nearest bus stop was at least a mile away, and yet, they weren’t fazed by this, they had—purpose.
Soon after they passed by my windshield my daughter came ambling out the doors of the station, iphone in one hand, her eyes plastered to its screen, her other hand dragging along luggage. I hadn’t even noticed if the Amish had luggage. I scanned the parking lot looking for them. Poof, they were gone.
“Did you see that Amish family?” I asked her when she got in the car.
“No,” she replied.
“But weren’t they on your train from New York?” I said.
She shrugged. “Possibly.” And she went back to examining an email from work.
Months later as I read David William’s When the English Fall, a dystopian novel set in an Amish community near Lancaster, PA, my mind wanders to the vision of that family and wonder if I have sacrificed my own sense of purpose to stay connected to a virtual reality. In William’s novel, a celestial storm knocks out the power grid throughout most of the world. Planes fall from the sky, villages, towns, and cities go dark. Only the Amish appear unfazed by the event as they are used to living off the grid.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.