The striking thing about this book, as I reflect on the reading experience, is the author’s use of animal symbols to convey atmosphere, a sense of place, portent and all things spiritual/paranormal. On the first page, entitled “The Hale Farm,” the tone is set in the sixth sentence with the appearance of a hawk as it “winds down through the open sky.” The hawk, a bird of prey, brings surprising and sudden death to its victims, and conveys a sense of menace to the story. In Christianity the hawk symbolizes death, injustice and violence by those who prey upon the weak. Could there be a more succinct characterization of George Clare, or a more ominous introduction to the plot?
Continuing to use birds of prey in part one, in a scene during the first May after the Hale parents’ death, three falcons that the father had raised by hand since birth, returned to the farm. Cole, the youngest of the three sons, remembers his father once telling him that there’s not much you can count on in this world, but those birds come back every year. When Cole first sees them in the sky, he wonders if they’d seen his father in heaven, if they’d brought a message from him. Cole raises his arms into a T and stands like a scarecrow, waiting. The birds hesitate on the roof of the house until the largest swoops down and lands on his forearm. Talons piercing his flesh, Cole views this as a test, and refuses to cry out. When he and the falcon locked eyes, Cole felt that something important that he could not name had been decided. Here is a foreshadowing of the part that Cole will play as the plot unfolds. The wild falcon in Christianity represents the unconverted soul and its attendant sin, while a tamed one stands for conversion, salvation. In the moment with the bird, symbol of his father, who was himself a “bird” of prey, Cole’s fate was sealed, but with the hope of salvation.
Continuing the bird imagery, the night that George first laid eyes on Willis at the sheep farm was in late September when it was starting to feel like fall. Arriving home while Catherine was baking a pie, George went out to the barn to split and haul in wood for a fire. When done, as he restored the ax to its resting place, a barn owl fluttered in the rafters, setting off for an evening of hunting. Here the bird of prey represents the polarizing effect an individual can have on others, where someone either likes or loathes him. There is also the suggestion of imminent death as the barn owl sets off to do what owls do in the night. The fact that the bird stirred at that moment calls attention to the object, the ax, itself. Not only is there portent here, but a very apt symbolic representation of the effect that George has on most people.
After a disturbing dinner at their friends’ Justine and Bram, where the men got stoned, Catherine beggged George to slow down his little Fiat convertible on the drive home. This of course, led to a fight, and as she gets out of the car and starts to walk, George drives off in anger, but rethinks and comes back for her. When she won’t respond to his pleas to get in the car, he gets out and grabs her. They struggle, he hit her and tore her dress. Defeated, Catherine gets back into the car. Before getting in the car himself, George scanned his surroundings, including the woods, where he saw a pair of yellow eyes looking at him: a deer, a witness. That deer, symbolic of gentleness, grace, innocence and sensitivity, represents Catherine, especially before her association with Justine started her thinking about an alternate life path for herself, and stands in stark contrast to the behavior it just witnessed in George. The incident also serves as a portent to future violence on George’s part.
That incident happened on the way home from George and Willis’s excursion to Olana, a historic home on the Hudson, when the car struck and injured a deer. The deer was in great distress and Willis begged George to ease its pain. After George “took care” of the deer, his shoes and pant legs were covered in blood. He threw away his shoes at a gas station, grabbed some paper towels and ordered Willis to wipe off the fender. In this scene, the deer becomes the victim of violence, a portent of things to come for other “deer.”
I didn’t start thinking about the animal imagery until I went back to reread the first page about the Hale Farm. My note to myself after reading it the first time was “I don’t get “The Hale Farm”page. When I finally understood, I realized how beautiful, narratively speaking, the image of the hawk was in laying out the first intimation of what was to come. Beautiful writing.
George Inness was a 19th century American artist of the Hudson River School who was influenced by the Old Masters and studied at Barbizon in France. George Clare, our “hero” did his doctoral thesis on this painter, but never actually got his doctorate because he refused to even consider the suggestions his supervisor presented. Rather than address their differences, George ignored them and his appointment to defend his thesis, but managed to get a teaching job anyway by forging the supervisor, Warren Shelby’s name on a letter of recommendation. This painting is mentioned in the book when George and his friend Bram accepted Giles Henderson’s invitation to shoot skeet with him at the inn. “It was a glorious fall day, straight out of Inness’s Morning Catskill Valley, he thought, the tops of the oak trees aflame with red leaves.” Later that day, after drinks and dinner at the inn, he met up with Willis after her waitressing shift, and thus began their “relationship. I chose this image rather than The Valley of the Shadow of Death (TVSD) because it appeals more to my personal aesthetic in terms of beauty. TVSD appears in the book when George Clare returns to the lecture hall for his first class after his boss, Floyd DeBeers’s funeral. When George entered the room the slide for this painting was already displayed on the large viewing screen. Rattled, Clare asked the assembled students, “Did someone put this up?” One of his seniors responded that it had been on the screen when they got there. Even though this was not what he planned to lecture on, he seized the opportunity to delve into Inness’s spiritual beliefs, and was surprised that despite of all the advances in science since either Inness’s or Swedenborg’s day, his students were intrigued by death and the afterlife. So because George had no use for God or spiritual things, he didn’t even speculate about how that slide got up on that screen on this particular day. Apparently sociopaths aren’t haunted by guilt.
A dish that was emblematic of the 70’s was onion dip, and that’s in the book at the parties the Clares hosted. I decided against using it here because everybody knows how to throw together a quick onion dip: a package of onion soup, sour cream, mayonnaise, bingo, bango, boingo! Your dip is ready. So instead, in recognition of the first time the Clares had dinner at the Sokolov’s and Justine served her famous lasagna, I give you mine.
Fresh Vegetable Lasagna
4 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 1½ lbs.)
1 (8-oz.) package sliced fresh mushrooms
2 garlic cloves, minced
Vegetable cooking spray
1 medium-size red bell pepper, chopped
1 medium-size yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups ricotta cheese
1 large egg
2¼ cups shredded mozzarella, divided ( 1½ cups plus 3/4 cup)
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided (¼ cup plus ¼ cup)
2 (24 oz.) jars Rao’s Marinara (you will have 1 C left over, or you may decide to use it all)
1 package lasagna noodles, cooked and drained
1. Preheat oven to 450°. Bake zucchini, mushrooms, and garlic on a cookie sheet coated with cooking spray 12 to 14 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender, stirring halfway through. Repeat procedure with bell peppers and onion. Reduce oven temperature to 350°. Toss together vegetables and salt in a bowl.
2. Stir together ricotta, egg, 1½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese, and ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese.
3. Spread 1 cup marinara sauce in a 13- x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Top with 3 noodles, 1 cup sauce, one-third of ricotta mixture, and one-third of vegetable mixture; repeat layers twice, beginning with 3 noodles. Top with remaining noodles and 1 cup sauce. Sprinkle with remaining 3/4 cup shredded mozzarella and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan.
4. Bake, covered, at 350° for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 to 15 more minutes or until cheese is melted and golden. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Substitute low fat ricotta and part skim mozzarella if you want to lower the fat content. You can use any marinara recipe, but since I discovered Rao’s, I don’t make my own any more because Rao’s is so delicious. It’s the recipe from the New York restaurant you can never get a reservation to unless you’re famous or connected in some way. I drown my sorrow over the probability of never eating at the restaurant every time I eat Rao’s supermarket sauces!