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Post Road Magazine #31

Marly Youmans's Catherwood

Emily Barton

When my college roommate was in graduate school, I took the bus from New York City to Virginia to visit her. She lived on the outskirts of Charlottesville in a spooky, derelict mansion Thomas Jefferson had designed. It had no heat. Dish soap froze on the sink, shampoo in the shower. She was then in the thrall of James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover, and in its honor we bought a Ouija board. We poured an offering libation of whiskey into an antique teacup and set it on the planchette. After a time, we made contact with . . . something. Neither of us sensed we were controlling the planchette, and yet, when we asked the spirits if they had a message for us, their response came swiftly: PREJUDICE HURT.

One afternoon when my friend had to go to class, she plunked me down in a horsehair armchair and gave me a novel to read: Marly Youmans's Catherwood, which tells the story of Catherwood Lyte, a woman who emigrates with her husband from England to the New World in 1676. They help found a settlement in upstate New York—perhaps, who knows?—where I live now. Early chapters describe their lives in fascinating detail: they live "like badgers in holes," their houses nothing more than "cellars" lined "with smallish timbers and bark. " When I first read this, I too was writing a novel that took place in a primitive locale, and the economy and vividness of the descriptions enthralled me. I sank into the scratchy armchair and kept turning the pages, fascinated by Youmans's language and Catherwood's thoughts.

But Catherwood turns out not to be a novel of settlement life. About a third of the way into the book, the main character loses her way as she heads home from a wintertime visit to neighbors. She is carrying her year-old daughter, Elisabeth, with her.

The story of anyone alone in the woods is frightening, uncanny. But a settler woman, unused to her harsh environment, hopelessly lost and protecting her baby? I couldn't turn away. That first time I read Catherwood, I was still a decade away from becoming a mother. Yet despite the uncomfortable chair, I read the book in one long sitting, breathless to find out what happened to Cath and Elisabeth. I later reread the book as the mother of a small child—again all at one go, my heart beating in my throat, this time because I was anxious both to reach and to forestall the inevitable conclusion.

In most stories, lost people return in the end to where they started. That is the arc of the "lost person" plot, which bends toward home, however much that place or concept has changed with absence. Hansel and Gretel eventually make it back. So does Odysseus. But Catherwood's fate is different. It's as if, in telling a story of the New World, Marly Youmans wants to make that world entirely new. The whole rest of her novel—all its uncharted territory—lets Cath wander. She wanders page after page, chapter after chapter. She wanders past the point at which the reader thinks she must reach human habitation. Only in the most spectral, dreamlike fashion does she manage to rejoin society. In all other respects, the novel ends with its main character still out in the uncharted wilderness. She could lie buried beneath my house, on this ordinary city block.

When I write, and when I teach writing, I focus on plot—not a common predilection for a literary novelist. We are supposed to think about intelligent people's issues such as language, imagery, and theme, whatever that is. Yet plot is what makes a story a story, the sine qua non of storyhood, the thing that keeps the pages turning. And I tend to think that once you are deep in a good plot—either as its writer or as its spectator—it can only lead, always and ever, to one inevitable (yet, in a good fiction, still somehow surprising) conclusion.

When Catherwood Lyte steps off the edge of the known world, she shows me an alternative that hints at the nature of discovery. Marly Youmans, claiming her territory as Henry Hudson once did this river, has no fear of unfamiliar lands. This writer knows she won't lose her reader. The question "Will they keep turning the pages if Catherwood never gets home?" doesn't seem to cross her mind. Instead, Youmans takes a lively interest in all of her vast, lonely world's particulars, even when they're so frightening as to be nearly unthinkable. She helps me, as a writer and teacher, to be more of an adventurer, to have a higher tolerance for risk, for oddity, for the plot that doesn't tie off where you think it will.



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