Book Review: ‘North’, Brad Kessler | Books | Seven days
Brad Kessler’s North is a novel about rooting in a sense of belonging – and uprooting. It opens with a May blizzard forecast for northern Vermont. Christopher Gathreaux, the cloistered abbot of Blue Mountain Monastery, rushes to cover his precious young spy shoots from the north.
The next morning, while plowing, Teddy Fletcher, the monastery keeper and disabled veteran of the War on Terror, discovers a car in the ditch. He brings the two passengers to the guest house of the monastery. One of them is Sahro Abdi Muse, a young Somali refugee. His hopes of finding asylum in the United States recently reached a dead end when his case was turned over to the “” two percent judge “… of the hundreds of cases he heard each month, he granted asylum at less than two percent. ”
It is 2017, and the national climate is not favorable to people like Sahro – “everyone’s plans [had been] questioned since we talked about a Muslim banKessler writes. After removing her ankle monitor from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sahro is officially a fugitive. Her companion, a volunteer who transports her to Canada, leaves her in the care of the monks after their accident.
What happens when the paths of a monk, refugee and veteran converge? While Christopher has chosen a life of rootedness and isolation, Sahro suffers the trauma of being repeatedly uprooted. For his part, Teddy returned to his roots after experiencing his own upheaval abroad.
Kessler knows something about rooting. Besides a novelist, he is a farmer and cheese maker who recounted his life as an urban transplant in rural Vermont in memoirs of 2010. Goat song: a seasonal life, a brief history of breeding and the art of making cheese. The agricultural experience is seen in his descriptions of Christopher’s Orchard ranching. The author’s farm in Sandgate is called Northern Spy Farm, and North includes a loving tribute to this variety of apple and the history of its bizarre name.
The question at the heart of North is simple: Will Sahro’s hosts help him get to Canada? Or will they obey the law of the land? The answer is never in great doubt. Christopher is a liberal Catholic who believes it is his biblical duty to shelter pilgrims and migrants. His foil, the more conservative Brother Bruno, expressed his opposition but quickly disappeared from history. As for Teddy, while Kessler holds us in suspense to know if he will help us, he specifies that the young man has a charitable heart.
The conflict is not Northstrong point of, at least in its central narrative. The story of Sahro’s stay in the monastery resembles an instructive parable, the conclusion of which is lost in advance. Its static quality is reminiscent of ekphrasis, the poetic description of a visual work of art – a magnificent example of which Kessler includes in a flashback to Christopher’s previous life as a New York artist.
However, the story comes to life in the chapters devoted to the characters’ past. These occupy a good part of North, as Kessler retraces the long paths that brought Sahro and Christopher to their meeting place.
While the 2017 sections can be read a bit stilted, flashbacks abound in evocative and musical prose. The passages describing Christopher’s conversion experience in Rome, for example, are almost Tolstoyan: stones. ”
Kessler excels at showing how faith is organically rooted in a person’s experience of the world. This is true not only for Christopher but also for Sahro, a devout Muslim who finds almost sacred power in stories. In custody at ICE, learning English by reading Maya Angelou, “She scanned the pages now like a butterfly finding pollen in every fold of the book, between paragraphs, words sticking to her in every sentence.”
Besides passages like this, Sahro’s flashback tale lends North the biting suspense that is absent from the main story. His migratory journey – from Africa to the Middle East and through South and Central America – is fascinating and heartbreaking. Readers will support it.
Sahro’s story shares a superficial plot point – a ride on the Mexican freight train network colloquially known as La Bestia – with Jeanine Cummins’ bestseller American dirt. This 2020 novel has sparked a debate about who can and should tell immigrant stories. Many have argued that white perpetrators inevitably tend to distort people from marginalized groups, speaking over the voices of those for whom they claim to speak.
In an afterword, Kessler directly addresses the problem. “In attempting to write this fiction, I have always been painfully aware of the intrusion and cycle of prejudice perpetuated by white writers claiming to speak for or represent people of color in some way. “he writes.
Also in this afterword, the author thanks the friends and readers of the Somali community who lent their expertise to the book, with special gratitude to the American Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Colchester. Many Somali writers are included in the bibliography.
Despite its power as a representation of a monk’s vocation and the fate of a refugee, North never quite clicks like a full novel. The central narrative pales in comparison to the flashbacks. The character of Teddy remains a bit encrypted and the messages can seem heavy. For example, Christopher questions himself and Sahro: “Weren’t they part of the same system, no matter how separate each one on the surface?
But this morality is urgent, as worn as it may be. Sahro’s fate ultimately forces Christopher to recognize that there is no place on Earth where human beings can live in true isolation from conflict and change. By opening up on this spring storm and explicitly linking it to the climate crisis, Kessler suggests that we have reached a point in human history where we sorely need to remind ourselves that we are all in the same boat.
In winter, it was already dark in the monastery during Compline, but in spring the sun lingered longer on the mountain and the office became the time of sunsets and birdsong at the end of the day. Compline came from the Latin word for “to finish,” and the office was a time of reflection and preparation for the night to come. In the tradition of the Order, it was also a daily practice of preparation for death and for eternity.
The monks sang the plainsong hymn “Now in the fading light of day”. That evening, they sang it directly, a capella, and not like a fairy tale like some evenings, accompanied by Brother Luke on the classical guitar. When the fourth psalm began, Christopher tried to relax in the song but was not ready; singing was a train he couldn’t take; he had already left the station. Singing was not like singing; you couldn’t just jump in. When you sang, you followed the breath. When you sang, you followed the beat. One was contemplation in the moment; the other reflection on the future. You had to put yourself aside when you sang, your ego and all your musical cues. You had to become a fish in a school and follow the drift and the swell of the line. Legato was the key – lightness. But Christopher was concerned about Sahro in the Guest House. And then another worry came back: his apples in the orchard – he hadn’t checked them all day.