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      Year of Wonders
Geraldine Brooks
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Get our free guide to Geraldine Brooks' novel of one courageous woman's struggle to survive in the year of the plague.

 
         

  Mollie Peer CORDELIA UNDERWOOD, MOLLIE PEER, DANIEL PLAINWAY
by Van Reid

 

INTRODUCTION

Could there be a more entertaining and adventurous locale than Portland, Maine, from July to December, 1896? Not if you have the good fortune to make the acquaintance of the marvelous Moosepath League! The exploits of this intrepid band of gentlemen form the heart of Van Reid's bustling trilogy of novels, which contain so many memorable characters, plots, and subplots that a complete community seems to burst forth from the pages.

One member of this community is Cordelia Underwood, the bright young redhead who lends her name to the first novel. Cordelia Underwood begins in the summer of 1896 when the heroine discovers that she has inherited from her uncle Basil a large tract of land in northern Maine. Then, in a chance but portentous meeting, she crosses paths with Tobias Walton, a wise and adventurous gentleman whose portly stature is dwarfed only by the size of his heart. At the same time, she meets John Benning, a dashing bachelor with designs on Cordelia and her gentle character. Soon after, the story moves to Portland's Shipswood Restaurant on the waterfront, where Matthew Ephram, Christopher Eagleton, and Joseph Thump have made the historic decision (though they are oblivious to its import as yet) to form the Moosepath League. These well-meaning, if "limited," gentlemen are awed by a newspaper account of what they deem Tobias Walton's extraordinary exploits (Mister Walton would modestly decline their importance), and unanimously nominate him chairman of their club. The paths of Underwoods and Moosepaths diverge after this, when the Underwoods and John Benning go off to explore Cordelia's inheritance, and Ephram, Eagleton, and Thump stay in Portland, busy with escapades that include a haunting deathwatch, a lady's parachute jumps, and a boxing match between two aging politicians. Upon learning that Cordelia and her family have found Uncle Basil's legacy to be more perilous than it first seemed, the Moosepath League's chairman leads his exuberant cohorts to the Underwoods' aid. As the tale reaches its climax, all parties unite to play crucial roles in unraveling the riddle of a sea chest and what elusive treasures may be hidden within.

Moving from the affluent world of the Underwoods to the more gritty environs of the Portland waterfront, Mollie Peer continues the adventures of Mister Walton, his squire, Sundry Moss, and the Moosepathians as they stumble upon a new cast of characters (as well as some familiar faces from the past) who profit from their valiant assistance. In this second installment in the trilogy, Mollie Peer, a determined young journalist currently relegated to the social page, sees a chance to uncover a real story when she spies an unkempt little boy alone on the docks and decides to follow him. Unknowingly Mollie has set in motion a whirl of actions and reactions that will involve not only herself and the boy, but also smugglers, kidnappers, and a gentle, brave baseball player named Wyckford Cormac O'Hearn (Wyck to his friends). As the story unfolds, paths cross and uncross up and down the autumnal Maine coast as Mollie, Wyck, and the Moosepath League try to unravel the mystery surrounding the little boy, named "Bird," and to foil that the nefarious characters who find him so valuable. In the process the Moosepathians encounter many distinctive personalities, including an Indian shaman named John Neptune, the spiritualist Baroness Blinsky, the revelers at the mysterious Merrymeeting Tavern, as well as the peculiar Quibbling Society, whose members debate issues such as the correct length of a lawn. The tale culminates once again in a converging of disparate elements, this time with a life-threatening gunfight between the virtuous and the unjust on the murky night waters of the Sheepscott River.

Bird continues to drive events in Daniel Plainway, the third book of the Moosepath League series. Plainway is a respected Maine lawyer, but despite his successful practice and a pleasant home life with his widowed sister, the bachelor is haunted by melancholy. His discontent harks back four years to the time when Nell Linnettdaughter of his friend and client, Iansuccumbed to the charms of a bad seed named Asher Willum. Willum deserted Nell after making her pregnant, and Nell died in childbirth. This tragedy, the subsequent death of Ian, and the disappearance of Nell's baby boy lie heavily on Daniel, who (undeservedly) blames himself for not preventing the tragedy. When Daniel spies a painting of Nell reproduced in a local newspaper, he resolves to track down the artwork, hoping that it will be a key to the boy's whereabouts. What Daniel does not yet know is that the newspaper ad was placed by none other than Tobias Walton. The good-hearted Moosepath League chairman hopes to learn the identity of the woman in the painting because he is quite sure that she is Bird's mother.

As Daniel makes plans to seek him, out Mister Walton is becoming involved inadvertently (as usual) in a new adventure, this time with the retired clergyman Frederick Covington, his wife, Isabelle, and their dog, Moxie. The Covingtons are in search of artifacts relating to the Vinland Sagaevidence of Viking presence in the New World. Walton, a fellow Viking enthusiast, offers his services in the search. Naturally, Sundry, Ephram, Eagleton, and Thump also join in, and the Moosepath League is off on another escapade in the service of strangers in nned of assistance. As the December days pass, the characters experience hauntings, ancient curses, sinister organizations, and snowball fights.Their adventures culminate in revelations at Christmas that involve them all, uniting them through common connections and a ubiquitous black hat.

The connections among the multitudinous characters that populate the Moosepath League series provide one of the most distinctive aspects of these stories. Masterfully emulating the Dickensian style, author Van Reid weaves multiple plots into one novel without losing the thread of any one story. The threads continue from novel to novel as familiar characters from the first book reappear in the second and third, like old friends. Filled with mystery, romance, poignancy, and gentle humor, as well as vivid depictions of Maineboth its history and its magnificent natural environmentthe trilogy holds a small world within its pages, bound by the selfless good deeds of the Moosepath League. This Moosepathian worldone in which generosity of spirit and human good nature triumph, is too rarely depicted today. A newspaper clipping that appears in Mollie Peer asks: "What greater wisdom is there than kindness?" Reading these warmhearted novels gives weight to these words and can't help but make readers ". . . vaguely convinced, just then, of their accuracy," as was Mollie Peer.

 

ABOUT VAN REID

A lifelong resident of Maine, Van Reid writes about what he knows. All three installments of the Moosepath League series, Cordelia Underwood, Mollie Peer, and Daniel Plainway, take place in the author's home state. Reid always knew he would be a writer, and decided to skip college in favor of the education he received working at various jobs near his home. "I was afraid I'd lose my individuality. I just had a feeling I could live here and learn what I needed to know and develop my own style." He currently lives (and for the foreseeable future, most likely will live) in Edgecomb, Maine, in a house that he and his brother built, on land that his family has owned since the 1800s. He and his wife have two children: a boy and a girl. In addition to writing, Reid works as assistant manager of the Maine Coast Book Shop in Damariscotta.

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH VAN REID

Cordelia Underwood contains the seeds of the next two novels in its pages, such as the brief appearance of Bird and Pembleton, and the introduction of Phileda McCannon. Had you planned out completely all three stories before writing any of them, or did each story evolve as you wrote it?

When I began Cordelia Underwood, Mollie Peer was a series of vague tableaus in my mind. I had not discovered Mollie herself yet, and the specific events of Daniel Plainway were far beyond my range and vision. Even in the context of a single book, I tend not to think very far ahead. The writing becomes a process of discovery. What I do know about a story ahead of time, I keep in the periphery of my thoughts; in this way I can move in the right direction and yet these foreknown people and events are fresh and novel to me when they arrive. I did have plans for Bird and Pembleton (or ,rather, I understood that we would be seeing them again) when they first appeared in Cordelia Underwood. By the time I had finished the first book, I had a pretty clear idea about the dockside scenes in Mollie Peer, and also the climactic chase on the Sheepscott River. By the time I finished Mollie Peer, I knew (regarding Daniel Plainway) about the Dash-It-All Boys, the snowball fight in Hallowell, and Sundry's solitary arrival of a winter's night at the Linnett mansion, but very little more. Sometimes discovery and knowledge seems more applicable to the writing process than do creation or invention. When Phileda McCannon first stepped onto the porch of the Weymouth House, I knew no more about her than the reader did. I thought she must be a little officious, at first, but then I caught the light of humor behind her spectacles and I warmed to her immediately. When she was startled into Mister Walton's arms I was as surprised as she and he. It was a great pleasure to observe their hesitant courtship, but I could not have told you how things would fall out between them till the scene in Mister Walton's kitchen at the end of Daniel Plainway.

The characters in Cordelia Underwood experience little mortal danger. In Mollie Peer, darker deeds are done (child abuse, attempted murder) and more sinister characters (Adam Tweed, Eustace Pembleton) appear. Why did you make this change between the first and second novels?

Several factors entered into this change of tone. I was concerned about the darker aspect of the second book, till my wife pointed out to me that the search for buried treasure (in Cordelia Underwood ) was something of a lark, however you looked at it, but that the fate of a little boy was unavoidably a serious business. So the central conflict itself called the tune to some degree. The fact that Mollie Peer took place in the fall also affected the mood of the book. I wanted a distinct atmosphere, different from the first book's sense of high summer. Most people in Maine will tell you that fall is the best time of year, but part of our feeling for the season is its mystery. The days are often warm, even as the nights grow colder, but the natural world is shutting down all around us, and the promise of winter snows and long nights lies ahead. Summer is the Fourth of July, fall is Halloween. There was also the fun in blending the unsuspecting members of the Moosepath League with Bird's dire circumstances. Finally, the character of Mollie herself governed the disposition of the story. She is a darker, more conflicted person than Cordelia, so that her motives are often mysterious even to herself. Of course, everything is relative, something that I realize when I consider just how dark and disturbing modern literature (both fiction and nonfiction) tends to be.

After creating two female heroines, you switched to a male protagonist in Daniel Plainway.Why? Did you worry about creating competition for Tobias Walton when you created Daniel Plainway, a character of comparable merit?

By the time I finished Mollie Peer, I had set myself the task (in the next volume) of telling the story of Bird's origins. The central image of the talethe young woman's portraitwas already brought to view, and as the general concept of the next book formed, I realized that it would (among other things) be the story of that young woman. As a practical matter, the tale of an orphan's parents must be one of poignancy and tragedy, and I had the sense that the empty house depicted at the end of Mollie Peer was a signal of some family's near extinction. The tale must therefore be told by an outsider, a friend; and in this set of circumstances I met the uncle-like figure of Daniel Plainway. I didn't worry about Daniel's likeness to Mister Walton. Sometimes you focus your characterizations by putting similar people together. Mister Walton and Daniel Plainway share certain traits; they are both middle-aged bachelors, gentle men as well as gentlemen with selfless attitudes toward others, but here the similarities perhaps end. Mister Walton is a world traveler of independent means, while Daniela country lawyerhas made a stable home in the small town of Hiram in western Maine. Daniel is not without humor, but does not share Mister Walton's jolly confidence in most things. In the third book, Mister Walton (with his squire, Sundry Moss) is on an adventure, Daniel (alone) is on a quest. This perhaps points up the difference between them. Nonetheless, Sundry himself sees a meeting of like souls when the two men shake hands.

The Moosepath trilogy follows the changing seasons, from summer to fall to winter, and weather plays a prominent role in each story. Why did you choose to emphasize these natural elements in your novels?

I love weather. To twist a thought from Tolstoy: All sunny days resemble each other, each rainy day is rainy in its own way. Many would disagree, I am sure, but there is nothing so boring to me as a long stretch of sunny days. There is drama in the weather, the light spring rain, the summer thunderstorm, the winter blizzard; and after a dry summer spell I need rain for the sake of my soul as much as for the dug well in the backyard. When you write, you write what you know, which is often what you love. This question has been posed before and it has made me aware of other Maine authors and artists who have used weather in their works; Kenneth Roberts comes to mind, as well as Ruth Moore (perhaps the state of Maine's greatest author, and one of the most overlooked writers of the twentieth century). Director John Ford, who was born and raised in Portland, used weather to powerful effect in many of his films. The change of seasons is important to New Englanders, as it is to northerners in general, and each turn of the calendar is greeted with both anticipation and some little trepidation. The landscape changes so dramatically that the forest surrounding my own home seems like a different place every three months or so. In chasing the seasons with each new adventure of the Moosepath League, I was able to alter the general mood, from the celebration of the bright summer to the mystery of fall, to the warmth and magic of the Yuletide. Each season is like a code that, carefully used, works like shorthand between the writer and the reader.

Of the three novels, which was the most challenging to write? Which was the most fun to write? Why?

Each of these books carried its own measure of angst and joy, and it would be difficult to quantify one from another. As a rule, the first third of a bookthe opening act, as it wereproves to be the slowest-going for me. The greatest challenge is discovering the characters' relationships and the balance between their discrete stories. Once I have some speed up, so to speak, the story tends to plane out of itself, and the pieces begin to fall into place more readily. This is when the characters seem to behave on their ownalways when I've gotten to know them well. Sometimes the most challenging passages are also the most funin fact, challenge and joy may be synonymous in the creative process. I tell people that raising kids is the hardest work I've ever done, and the most fun I've ever had. If writing takes second place to raising kids in these respects, it is at least a recognizable echo. However, Daniel Plainway has five separate (if ultimately united) plots, whereas the first two books have three apiece. That would probably give Daniel Plainway the title. Sometimes the most challenging aspect of writing is to not tell myself too much about the story ahead of time. Certain scenes call siren-like to be written, but I fend off those calls, using them as carrots on a stick. The bear scenes in Cordelia Underwood would qualify here, as would the scenes with Dresden Scottparticularly that moment on page 330 when Scott looks around the corner of Moose Manor to see Cordelia with the iron ladle in hand. In Mollie Peer there was the departure of the Loala, Thump saying Bird's prayers for him, the baseball game with the Penobscots, and the moment when Mollie pushes Wyckford aside to dive after the little boy. In Daniel Plainway there was the business on Council Hill, the visit with the Pettengill sisters, all the "Hat chapters," and Daniel's departure from Veazie. That is not to say that I didn't have great fun with most everything else; it is just that these particular scenes drew me along with a certain amount of foreknowledge.

Your novels contain multiple plots and subplots that take readers in many amusing and exciting directions, but by the end of each book the divergent paths all come together in one neat conclusion. How do you manage to keep so many different story lines straight and so effectively unite them at the end?

A singularity of purpose among the characters goes a long way in nudging them in the right direction. The natures of Mister Walton and Sundry, in particular, make it reasonable that they will gravitate toward people in need. To be honest, this never seemed a difficult aspect of the plotting, and I'm seldom conscious of manipulating the characters in this fashion. Ray Bradbury says that there is a writer in your head that knows more than you do, and often the solutions to problems like these seem to be at hand when I need themknock on wood! In my youth I was a great fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created Tarzan, and I still admire his storytelling. The movies, of course, have made something of a campy figure of Burroughs's greatest creation, which is unfortunate, but reading these adventures was like a course in intricate plotting. Burroughs often had two or three parallel plotlines going at once, and always managed to tie them up neatly at the end. Later, reading Fielding and Dickens may have reinforced these principles. Certainly, if I was consciously emulating any form when I began Cordelia Underwood, it was the picturesque novel of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, or ,rather, the inverse of that form, without the classic rogue as the lead character.

Is Daniel Plainway your last Moosepath novel, or can readers look forward to more adventures with Mister Walton, Sundry, and the rest of the illustrious League?

When I began Cordelia Underwood, I had ideas for the three books concerning the Moosepath League, thinking that more would suggest themselves as I progressed, and this certainly has been the case. I continue to be curious about these people, as well as about their successors. I am also interested in the lives of several supporting characters outside the canon of the Moosepath League. One of the unexpected pleasures is to hear from readers who want to know more about Mrs. Roberto (probably the leading favorite in an unofficial poll), or Horace McQuinn and his brother Quentin, John Neptune, or Angus McAngus. Perhaps someday these stories will be told.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Cordelia Underwood

  1. Horace McQuinn and Maven Flyce appear only briefly in the novel, most notably at the story's beginning and end. What is their significance in the book, and why do you think they are positioned this way within the narrative?
     
  2. How does Cordelia herself stand apart from the many other leading characters of Cordelia Underwood ? In the larger sense, what does her character represent, and why do you think the book was named in her honor?
     
  3. Ephram, Eagleton, and Thump, the three founders of the Moosepath League, appear at many critical junctures in the novel, and the name of the club provides the foundation that will unite the series. But despite their critical role, the three gentlemen usually have a quite limited grasp of what's happening around them, more often bumbling into events than calculating an entrance. How does this irony affect the tone and character of the novel?
     
  4. Compare and contrast John Benning with Dresden Scott in relation to Cordelia and to the novel as a whole. How does the author's portrayal of these men differ, and how do these differences affect how we view their characters?
     
  5. Cordelia's cousin and close friend Priscilla Morningside accompanies her through much of the novel. How does Priscilla differ from Cordelia? How do these differences help define Cordelia's character?

Mollie Peer
  1. The weather is almost a character in its own right in Mollie Peer, as the story takes place in the particularly tumultuous month of October in Maine. Using descriptive passages from the novel, discuss how the seasonal qualities of autumn play a role in the story. How does this setting create the tone for the action?
     
  2. Our first experiences of Mollie Peer aren't particularly favorable: first she puts her friend Hilda in danger and then lies about her relationship to the little boy named Bird to get information for a story. Later, her motivations are explained and her good qualities revealed. How does this way of presenting Mollie's characteristics make us aware of her complexities? How is she different from Cordelia Underwood, and how does this affect the tone of the novel?
     
  3. In Cordelia Underwood Sundry Moss's role is mainly that of loyal sidekick, but in Mollie Peer he comes into his own. How does his growing relationship with Mister Walton and his own actions affect the outcome of events?
     
  4. Family relationships play a significant role in Mollie Peer, notably because many of the charactersMister Walton, Mollie Peer, Bird, and othershave lost those most important to them. How does this sense of loss affect the characters and the tone of the novel?
     
  5. Describe the development of the relationship between Mollie Peer and Wyckford O'Hearn. What is the source of their difficulties in getting along? At the end of the novel, do you feel that the nature of their relationship has been fully resolved?

Daniel Plainway
  1. Aside from being male, how is Daniel Plainway a different type of character from those who give their names to the first two books in the trilogy? How is he similar to Cordelia and Mollie?
     
  2. When Daniel Plainway and Tobias Walton first meet, "there was something remarkable about the moment and about the two men as they shook hands." Why?
     
  3. In addition to traditional narrative, the author uses a number of different techniques to tell this story, including correspondence, telegrams, and flashback narratives. How do these affect the tone, pace, and scope of the novel?
     
  4. Both Daniel Plainway and Tobias Walton pursue romance in this novel. How do the women they choose differ and how are they similar? How do their choices reflect their own personalities? Do you think either man would ever have progressed in his wooing without Sundry's help?
     
  5. Why do you think Nell's ghost appears to Eagleton, and not one of the other characters who slept at the Linnett house on the night of the Winter Solstice?
     
  6. The Moosepath League is not the only club to appear in this novel. What purpose do the bibulous Dash-It-All group and the sinister Broumnage Club serve in relation to the Moosepathians?
     
  7. Daniel Plainway is the only novel in the Moosepath series to use a male protagonist instead of a female as the catalyst for the story's action. It is also the darkest novel in the series, containing some tragic themes that have sexual overtones. Do you think that these points are connected?
     
  8. At the beginning of the novel, Mister Walton loses his hat. By the end of the novel, the hat has traveled all over Portland on many different headsnone of which belong to principal characters. What is the significance of the traveling hat? What collective role do its various owners play in the story?