Anna Quindlen’s “Miller’s Valley” is Mimi Miller’s reminiscence of the more than 10 year period in her life when the federal government was planning to move a dam and flood her home town of Miller’s Valley. The story relays the expected emotional opposition to loss of home and place, but along the way it touches on virtually every life issue that is a normal (and in some instances unusual) part of a person’s and community’s history.
The story begins when Mimi is 11 years old. We meet her as she and her older brother Tommy are eavesdropping on their parents’ conversations through the heating vents. Those conversations are sporadically muffled by the sound of the sump pump chugging along to keep the constant flow of water out of the basement. At the beginning, these overheard conversations inevitably included the government’s plans to flood Miller’s Valley and her parent’s differing views on what would and should happen.
Mimi is the youngest of three children. Brother Tommy is handsome and at loose ends. Ultimately he enlists in the Marines and finds himself in Vietnam. Brother Eddie is 10 years older than Mimi, was high school class valedictorian and when we first meet him is at the state university on a Rotary scholarship studying to be an engineer. Mimi has two friends, LaRhonda, the daughter of an entrepreneurial restauranteur, and Donald, the son of divorced parents, who spends time in Miller’s Valley with his much beloved grandparents.
Mimi’s Aunt Ruth, her mother’s sister, lives in a separate house on Mimi’s parent’s property and refuses to step foot outside the house. Ruth has a very close relationship with Mimi’s father, Bud, who farms the property and is the community’s fix it man. Mimi’s strong willed mother, Miriam, is a nurse.
Throughout the story many things happen. Mimi falls in love and discovers sex, Donald moves away to California but stays in touch, LaRhonda gets pregnant and marries young, people die and are born and ultimately, in the end, the dam is moved and Miller’s Valley is flooded. This is not a giveaway–you know it at the beginning!
The book is ambitious in its effort to address virtually every life issue that arises from birth to grave. Government, politics, war, aging, love, disappointment, loss, grief, mental illness, money, sexism, feminism, destiny, identity, religion and sex are all touched on in this relatively short book.
A recurring theme of the book is a parent’s desire for better things for her children and how the child’s success seems to emphasize the disappointments in the parent’s life. When her father interacts with his engineer son Eddie, Mimi observes that “I think deep down inside he didn’t know exactly how to feel about Eddie. He was proud of how well he’d done, but the way in which he’d done well made my father feel like Eddie was above the life he’d been raised in.” And when Mimi decides to become a doctor, she says of her mother, “My mother was never one of those nurses who complained about the doctors, but when I listened to her talk about me becoming a doctor myself I figured out pretty quickly that I was paying her back for years of feeling like she’d come in a distant second.”
The book is a pleasant and short read, but is overly ambitious and tries too hard to tackle all of life’s issues and wrap them all up in a neat package with a pretty bow (this may be the holiday season speaking through me). The writing and story telling is a little too cute and convenient for my taste. If you are an Anna Quindlen fan, or if you like a life story that doesn’t drag you down into the depths of despair, then you might want to check this out when it is released in April. You will then be able to reserve the book at Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11195723__Smillers%20valley__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold.