Northern Lights

Teddy Maki

Alison McGhee's second novel, Shadow Baby, begins with this image, glimpsed through a crack in a church window: an old man, turned into a shadow by moonlight, trudging through the deep snow and hanging lanterns in tree branches so that skiers will find their way home. The watcher is Clara Winter, author of book reports on nonexistent books, melancholy dreamer, and all-around eccentric 11-year-old girl. In one deftly rendered moment, McGhee presages the drift of Shadow Baby: A clever little girl watches an old man, and the old man teaches the little girl to discern possibility in the cast-off things of the world.

Like Clara Winter, Alison McGhee is a masterful spinner of stories. This Minneapolis writer's first novel, Rainlight, drifts through the lives of a dozen residents of North Sterns County, New York, spiraling around an auto accident that has briefly linked them. Shadow Baby, which takes place in the same upstate terrain, is the second in a planned four-part series that, the author explains over coffee on a sun-streaked Thursday afternoon, maps out the physical and sensual topography of her childhood home. "My husband tells me I need to break out of North Sterns. But it's in my bones. It's the place where everything is set."

McGhee's terra familiaris is the foothills of the Adirondack mountain chain, six million acres of state-protected wilderness spreading north from Utica nearly to the Canadian border. Aside from the seasonal incursions of nature enthusiasts, much of it is a backwater of scattered farmsteads and hardscrabble hamlets, pushing tentatively into mist-shrouded mountain hollows. During the winter, the Adirondacks are the snowiest place in the continental United States. The roads become impassable, and the landscape a quilted patchwork of snowdrifts and chimneys hissing smoke from wood fires. If you lived here during the winter, you would learn to look after yourself.

The summers are solitary also. If you were a scrawny and precocious girl raised in the Adirondacks, you'd say goodbye to your schoolmates in April and retreat to your family's barn, where you'd lie in drowsy splendor, perfumed by the smell of fresh-cut hay, to read. You'd read indiscriminately and voraciously from whatever was on hand: potboiler biographies, tattered public-library copies of pioneer epics, illustrated books about China. You'd learn to see with your imagination, and later, when you grew up and came down from the foothills, the world beyond the Adirondacks would be a familiar place: You'd have already taught yourself how to live fully in it. If you were Alison McGhee, this is how you would learn to write.

McGhee, who is now a teacher of creative writing at Metropolitan State University and a warm, soft-spoken presence, recalls North Sterns with a nostalgic air. "It was such an idyllic rural childhood," she says. "It was pretty isolated, too. I ate those biographies like candy. They were like drugs--so formulaic. I'd read with no screens. I'd just go to the barn with my books and eat them up.

"There was one in particular--My Side of the Mountain--where a child runs away to live on a mountain. When I look back now at how much that one permeated into Shadow Baby, it's almost embarrassing."

McGhee's childhood idylls instilled in her a writer's curiosity for everything, and she developed, in particular, a fascination with China--a place as far away as the moon to this child of the Adirondacks. "In the fourth grade I did a report on Chinese tea--not a Clara Winter book report, but a real one--so maybe that was what started it. I don't really know. It was just something I'd always been interested in."

Accordingly, when McGhee went away to college near Burlington, Vermont--"It was like a metropolis after North Sterns"--she majored in Chinese and eventually found herself studying in Taiwan. "It was all a dream come true. But it was also very familiar. It felt perfectly natural, like a place I'd known all my life."

McGhee's affinity for Chinese culture played prominently into her first published novel, Rainlight. In it, a North Sterns woodsman named Starr Williams dreams of visiting the terra-cotta warriors of Xi'an, an obsession his friends and family accept as an endearing peculiarity. Williams never makes it to China, but Rainlight imagines the ancient imperial capital of Xi'an and ranges even further; by novel's end McGhee has flitted into the hearts and minds of Starr Williams's family and cautiously excavated their stillborn ambitions. Consider the remembrances of Starr's wife: "When I was eighteen I walked the beach and knew the hugeness of the world, wondered what would be. Within myself I held secrets, secrets of the body: eggs of my unborn children, skin I would touch with my long fingers, footprints lost on sand."

Shadow Baby is also concerned with closely held secrets. Like Rainlight, it is a sort of interior mystery, wherein the characters attempt to draw meaning from apparently arbitrary turns of fate--in this case a baby lost in childbirth, a mysteriously missing father, and an accidental trailer-park fire. Clara Winter, who is both the author's alter ego and the type of preternaturally sensitive child populating William Trevor novels, plays the sleuth throughout, drawing connections from her hermetic, bibliophilic experience. "Books are sacred," she tells us in one typically flowery aside. "Books are to me what the host is to the priest, the oasis to the desert wanderer, the arrival of winged seraphim to a dying man. After I finish making up a book report, I myself want to read the book. I myself feel as if the book is out there, searching for me, with an ending I don't know, a future waiting to be written."

Books, to a little girl who has no family beyond a distant mother and no friends beside a psychotic chicken named C.J., also signify an escape from enforced solitude. Their material consistency is of especial solace to Clara, who feels every loss acutely: the sting of winter, the unassailable silence of her mother, and, above all, the absence of her dead baby sister, a doppelgänger who expires during a snowstorm under mysterious conditions. As any budding writer would do, she compensates for all this absence with endless invention.

In the process of spinning her stories, Clara comes upon the old man--another of North Stern's cast-off denizens--and his hanging lanterns. He is, she learns, an immigrant, a scavenger of compost and rubbish heaps, and a tinsmith of some genius. The two--a congenitally precocious girl, and a quiet man who denies her nothing--strike up an easy rapport. "You would not have known it to look at him," Clara clarifies, "but the old man was a hero. In his life, he was a savior of babies, treed cats, and victims of natural disaster. In large and small ways and always for the better, the old man changed the lives of those who encountered him."

Though Clara is fabricating, the old man does indeed save her (in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, although to say more would be to give away the ending in most un-Clara-like fashion). As the novel's central friendship matures, McGhee turns from the buried secrets and minor tragedies of North Sterns County to a complexly layered portrait of the author as a young woman.

The opening scene of lanterns dangling in the tree branches, once an image of elusive mystery, has by novel's end become a symbol of Clara's metamorphosis into a writer--or, as she explains it, an apprentice in the art of illumination. "An apprentice might be set loose at any time. She has to go on alone, remembering what the master taught her. She has to be able to see the world as separate but connected parts, joined not by letters and words but by relationships, and the possibility of beauty." This, it seems upon finishing Shadow Baby, is also the lesson that Alison McGhee teaches.

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