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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

In a Death, the Passing of a Way of Life : KNOWLE'S PASSING by Edith Forbes; Seal Press $21.95, 266 pages

June 21, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How stunning it is when an elegant structure supports and then encourages growth in the creatures that live and breathe in it. A gorgeous building perfectly suited to its environment and the needs of its inhabitants, that's what this novel brings to mind.

Knowle passes. No one knows who did it. There's a detective who falls in love with the protagonist and there are suspects. The death happens in a place, Vermont, in a dour and edgy season--the end of winter, and in a social context, the end of the kind of farming practiced, no, lived, by Vernon Knowle.

Knowle, ostensibly, shoots himself, convinced as one of his three children describes it, that he has become "a dinosaur. . . . Civilization had moved on and left him behind, and he knew it. . . . I told him someday there will be three kinds of farmers in this country and his kind isn't one of them. There will be the employee . . . the modern-day sharecropper . . . and there will be the hobbyist. Dad didn't fit the new picture."

This is a man, his daughter, Vincie, remembers, who saw "his family as part of a culture, his farm as part of an economy, his land and livestock as part of nature, and all of them part of a vast mysterious creation." Not to romanticize Vernon Knowle, who is also, like so many New Englanders at face value, completely unlovable, untouchable and uncommunicative.

Like King Lear, Knowle's three children have chosen lives in the past, the present and the future. Darrell, a biology teacher, lives in the same town they grew up in and would be very happy taking over the family farm. Chad works in marketing, is slick, handsome and citified. Vincie, through whose eyes the story unfolds, is Cordelia: Loyal to her father, honestly aggrieved by his death, and desperately unhappy in her marriage to the consummate arrogant egghead philandering professor, Gifford.

It is Vincie who first doubts her father's suicide, appealing to a police detective, Bret, to help her fill in the details in the newspaper's version of the story that do not fit with her memories of her father. Painfully, this means determining which of the two brothers might have killed their father. A combination of old wounds and practical details leads unhistrionically to the real story, which is satisfying. Along the way, one wishes that Vincie would actually dismember and maim her repulsive husband, but the reader must make do with the fact that she will leave him.

Without a doubt, the fire under this novel lies not in the hearts of the characters or in their deep unhappiness, but rather in the backdrop: the passing of a way of life, the way a generation drops lemming-like off the cliff of history to make way for a new generation, struggling here and there with its obsolescence.

And there is the Puritan upbringing, which scars many children for life. Darrell explains his father's inability to express the love he felt for his family: "Because he grew up in New England. Duty first, and then the things you love. Four months of winter, and then a month of sleet and slush and mud and then finally, a day when the sun bursts through, and wisps of fog are hanging over the fields but the sky is blue, and the blackbirds are singing in every tree, and your heart wants to swell up and explode with joy." Vernon Knowle, like a lot of survivors in this tough tradition, didn't live till the spring.

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