Monday, March 18, 2024

Review: Leaping Man Hill, by Carol Emshwiller

Review: Leaping Man Hill, by Carol Emshwiller

by Rich Horton

I reviewed Carol Emshwiller's Ledoyt several months ago. Leaping Man Hill is its sequel. My review of it will necessarily contain spoilers for Ledoyt, so for those who haven't read that novel and are allergic to spoilers, let me just say: Go read Ledoyt! Both it and Leaping Man Hill are simply wonderful novels, full of tragedy and of sweetness, of hardship and of love, of landscape and work and history and people. They are great novels, and woefully underappreciated. I'll begin. by recapitulating the introductory paragraphs to my review of Ledoyt. If you want to skip the Leaping Man Hill review, stop after those. 

"Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) was one of the greatest of SF writers, though she never quite got the recognition I felt she deserved -- and much of that she did get came late in life. There are many reasons for that -- she didn't start publishing until in her mid-30s, she stopped for a few years when her kids were young, her vision was very individual, and thus hard for many to get a grasp on, she wrote a fair amount outside the SF field. Another reason, though, is that she wrote mostly short fiction. She published only six novels, the first (Carmen Dog) in her late 60s, in 1988. Her last three were published in her 80s. All too often, it's novels that get the attention.

"What about those other two novels? Well -- there's a story there too. Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill were published in 1995 and 1999, respectively. (In Emshwiller's 70s.) And -- they are not SF. They are Westerns, and not really conventional Westerns. Ledoyt is set in the first decade of the 20th Century, and Leaping Man Hill is set after the First World War. And they aren't shoot 'em up Westerns -- they are about families, about making a life in remote parts of California before anything much like modern technology had arrived. All this is not to say there's a lack of action -- there's plenty. There are fights, shots fired, rape, people dying. There's also sex and partying and honest work and weather and childcare advice from the 19th century. And that's just in Ledoyt. [It's in Leaping Man Hill too, along with PTSD and music and the mountains and love ...]"

OK, the new review starts here.

Leaping Man Hill is told a bit more straightforwardly than Ledoyt. As noted above, it's set just after WWI. One primary viewpoint characters are Mary Catherine, a 19 year old girl who has been hired by Charlotte (Lotti of Ledoyt) to teach her 9 year old brother Abel, who had been born at the end of Ledoyt. Charlotte is, mostly on her own though with some help from her brother Fay, running the ranch/farm that her mother had in Ledoyt. Her mother has not truly recovered from her husband's death (the climax of Ledoyt.) Neither, really, have Fay and Abel, neither of whom will speak. It is Charlotte's hope that Mary Catherine will not just teach Abel but bring him to speak.

The other main character is Hen, or Henny, or Henry, or Henri, the only son of the wealthy neighboring Ledoyt family. (The patriarch of this family is the brother of the title character of Ledoyt.) Hen has just returned from fighting in the War. He lost his arm in the war, and he had a love affair with a French woman which her parents thwarted. And he has extreme survivor guilt and intense PTSD (then called shell shock, though neither term is used in this book.) He mostly holes up in a shabby shack, and goes into the nearby town mainly to get into fights, which he always loses.

Mary Catherine also has scars. Her mother was (is) a "fallen woman", and not in a nice way. Mary Catherine has no idea who her father was, and she has endured life wiht a series of so-called "stepfathers", many of them sexually and/or physically abusive. She was helped by a sympathetic teacher with whom she sheltered for a while, and she's an intelligent young woman. She's been teaching other families since she got out of school herself, and trying to avoid her awful and grasping mother.

Mary Catherine vigorously starts working with Abel, who is difficult to control -- as noted, he doesn't speak, and he also is an avid climber. She uses severe pinching to get his attention, with indifferent success, and she tries to help out around the house, and starts making slow progress. For a bit she wonders if she should marry Fay, but then he meets Hen, and immediately falls very hard for him. Things start to happen rapidly -- Fay runs away, Oriana tries to find him, Mary Catherine and Henry try to but in the end it's Abel -- who is with her when she dies. 

Hen is tortured by Mary Catherine -- he's attracted to her but feels himself wholly unworthy of anyone, and worried about his violent bursts, and still remembers his French girlfriend. He delights in Mary Catherine's delight in simple things like the view off the hill behind his shack, and hates that she clearly loves him, and convinces her that he will never marry.

The story then follows the course of their relationship, with flashbacks to Hen's time in the army. There are some shocking events, and some sweet ones -- a trip to San Francisco, for example, with Hen showing off his musical virtuousity and showing her things she's never seen before, like bars on the wrong side of town, fancy restaurants, even the opera. Abel opens up more and more. Mary Catherine cooks for everyone. She becomes close to Charlotte, and to Hen's mother. Fay returns. Charlotte's painter friend (from Ledoyt) comes by. Mary Catherine's dreadful mother and her latest "special friend" try to extort money from her (and worse.)  There are illnesses and fights and running away, also love, beauty, hard work. Passages of great beauty, great power, humor, and also sadness.

I haven't gotten to the heart of what makes these books so good -- I'm not the writer Carol Emshwiller was! But they are truly special. Gorgeously written. Mary Catherine's voice is great. There are lines here and there in the novel that just glow. There are things that happen that are very hard to take, and there are things that are impossibly sweet. Some small press needs to get Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill back in print! (Maybe the Dorothy Project in my home town? :) )

No comments:

Post a Comment