Washington Reads – A Sudden Light by Garth Stein (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 416 pp.)
Recommendation by Mary Paynton Schaff, Reference Librarian, Washington State Library
Fall means ghosts, creepy old houses, and stories about families scarred by tragedy. So now’s the perfect opportunity to gather up your afghan, sit by the fire with a cup of hot cider, and dive into Garth Stein’s newest book, “A Sudden Light.”
Fourteen-year-old narrator Trevor is brought to crumbling Riddell House in north Seattle by his father in the summer of 1990. Trevor’s father Jones has a lot on his plate: settle the Riddell family estate, get his father into a nursing home, make amends to his sister Serena who has spent the better part of her life nursing their father, and make his peace with the untimely death of their mother. Last but not least, Trevor is hoping his father can find a way to repair his marriage to Trevor’s mother, despite the fact they are currently separated by thousands of miles. As Jones begins to wrestle with these issues, Trevor is drawn into the history of the storied Riddell family and the monumentally fascinating but literally decomposing Riddell House. Trevor is aided in his exploration of the house, and his family history, by an unlikely guide who reveals to him further betrayals, tragedies, and opportunities.
The Washington setting of “A Sudden Light” plays a crucial role in Trevor’s coming of age story. The Riddells make their fortune in logging, as many Northwest pioneers did. Each of Trevor’s ancestors has a relationship to the trees; cutting them, climbing them, or building something out of the wood. As the profits from the trees roll in, the Riddells became the fashionable aristocracy of Seattle society. Lumber barons make deals with railroad magnates. And when Trevor’s guide steers him to John Muir’s “The Mountains of California,” Trevor begins to wonder what costs might have incurred as the family chopped and bargained its way to the top.
There’s an enjoyable gothic overtone to “A Sudden Light.” Exploring an old haunted house has been a favorite literary device from Jane Eyre to Rebecca to Scooby Doo. The library, ballroom, locked trunks, and secret stairways you hope Trevor will find are all there. Adding to this reading satisfaction, Stein further layers in a generational family saga, lost journals in leather bindings, the relationship between fathers and sons, pairs of doomed lovers, conflicting promises, and the sublime joy that can be found in nature. (This librarian experienced such joy simply reading Stein’s description of historical research undertaken in a pre-internet public library, using microfilm no less!)
So rest your bones and dig into this satisfying Northwest work of fiction.
Available at the Washington State Library
Audio book available through the publisher.