The Flicker Of Old Dreams
By Susan Henderson
Susan Henderson, the author of the critically acclaimed debut Up from the Blue, is a novel about a young woman who comes most alive while working in her father’s mortuary in a small, forgotten Midwestern town.
Mary Crampton has spent all of her thirty years in Petroleum, a small Western town supported by a powerful grain company. Living at home, she works as an embalmer in her father’s mortuary: an unlikely job that has long marked her as an outsider. Yet, to Mary there is a satisfying art to positioning and styling each body to capture the essence of a subject’s life.
Though some people that live in the town want to think that the community is thriving, the truth is that Petroleum is crumbling away.
“Anyone who doesn’t live here stands out right away,” Henderson writes. “Except for hunting season, when strangers visit with elk chained to the beds of trucks, the only outsiders we see are the high school basketball teams, here for a game, or the occasional stray driver who pulls off the highway, looking for gas or a bite to eat. We can only accommodate the bite to eat.
“I listen to the stamp of my boots against the cold ground. I like to walk these dirt roads when it’s just me, nothing but my footsteps and the swish of my parka. Our town has no streetlights, no traffic lights, so as soon as the sun sets, the houses and shops look like black cutouts against indigo, everything leaning south, away from the wind. I close my eyes against the dust. You can do this in a town as small as ours, walk in the middle of the street with your eyes shut.
“At the post office, I unlock the box marked Crampton. Every family name on the brass doors is deeply familiar. There are 182 residents of Petroleum. We all keep track of the latest number.
“Those who’ve heard of Petroleum are often surprised it’s still here. The town is primarily known for what it no longer has: oil. In its heyday, when the pumps draw black fuel from the ground, the population spiked to almost two thousand. But many were only passing through, here to make a quick buck and then move along when the wells ran dry.”
The process that began Petroleum’s decline began twenty years ago when an accident in the grain elevator killed a beloved high school athlete.
The mill closed for good, the train no longer stopped in town, and Robert Golden, the victim’s younger brother, was widely blamed for the tragedy and shipped off to live elsewhere. Now, out of the blue, Robert has returned to care for his terminally ill mother.
After Mary, who is reserved, introspective, and deeply lonely, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Robert, which shocked the locals, she finally begins to consider what might happen if she dared to leave Petroleum.
Susan Henderson spent a month living in a motel room in a dying Montana town to understand the atompshere of the place and the people she would be writing about in this novel.
The hotel room she lived in had no landline, no television, no internet connection. She had to drive 200 miles to call her family.
Henderson, who lives on Long Island, said to Publsher’s Weekly, “I went to Winnett, Mont., population about 180. My father was born in Winnett and I used to visit when I was a child. Part of my protagonist Mary’s character developed from my own feelings of being an outsider there. I was different, and they don’t want you to be different in Winnett. I was always terrified when we’d visit my uncles and grandparents there every couple of years. I was the only girl in the family, and we’d go to the cemetery and everyone would have a rifle. We’d clear the rattlesnakes out of the sagebrush….
“Today it’s a town where all the buildings are tipped sideways, and a lot of them are empty. The train tracks have grass grown over them. There’s a gas station with no gas pumps. The barber shop opens one day a week.”
A captivating read that you won’t be able to put down, The Flicker Of Old Dreams is set in the Heartland of America and explores themes of resilience, redemption, and loyalty in prose that is as lyrical as it is powerful.