three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
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0
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A-The School on Hearts Content RoadBest-selling author and political activist Carolyn Chute (a member of the 2nd Maine Militia) revisits western Maine and its impoverished residents in her first new novel in ten years. It is the first in a planned five-book series.

The Story: Two friends in remote, rural Egypt, Maine, suspicious of the government and contemptuous of modern capitalism, react to the hardship and misery of the region in very different ways. Peace-loving Gordon St. Onge, nicknamed "the Prophet," withdraws from the world and creates the Settlement, a polygamous commune and refuge for the downtrodden where he and his wives raise vegetables, make their own clothes, and experiment with alternative energy. By contrast, combative Rex York, a Vietnam War veteran, assumes leadership of the Border Mountain Militia. Pestered by paranoid, meddling neighbors and pursued by government operatives, the two men form an uneasy alliance to protect their freedom and way of life.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 384 pages. $24. ISBN: 0871139871

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Anti-corporatist and human scale in focus, libertarian and exuding the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ passion evinced at the founding of this country, The School on Heart’s Content Road, Chute’s latest novel, reads as if Ralph Nader asked Ken Kesey to collaborate on a chronicle of life in the Disunited States, and Kesey pulled out all the stops. … Buckle your seatbelts, we are off the pavement, and most likely no one is insured." Art Winslow

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"The School on Heart’s Content Road is a triumph of characterization and color. Following the plot requires concentration, energy, and a willingness to look past the political posturing and simply enjoy the ride." Augusta Scattergood

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Her writing is raw and strong and vivid, with deep resounding echoes of Faulkner and Upton Sinclair. … She’s a scientist, brilliant and mad, lighting matches under beakers, mixing compounds, breaking words into their smallest divisible parts." Susan Salter Reynolds

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Like a ferocious bulletin from an alternate universe—tumbling, pell-mell, brilliant and strange—comes this explosive and discomfiting fifth novel by Carolyn Chute. … This is a beautiful novel, a polemical novel, a messy novel." Stacey D’Erasmo

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Such material would become unbearably preachy in the hands of a lesser writer, but Chute imbues her urgent narrative with propulsive energy and an astonishing range of richly detailed characters. … She is at her most adventurous and idiosyncratic, moving between past and present tense and between first-and third-person perspectives with an ease that impresses technically but, more importantly, gives the story an unusual and deeply affecting blend of intimacy and generational sweep." Gregory Miller

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The most compelling parts come when Chute trades in the role of activist for that of storyteller. … Her insistent roar against the collected injustices of the American system never abates, and reading this book sometimes feels more like reading Noam Chomsky than it does a work of literary fiction." Amy Woods Butler

Entertainment Weekly 2 of 5 Stars
"[Chute] deserves points for ambition. … But while her material is lively—the plot revolves around a controversial polygamous commune in Maine—her storytelling is so jumpy and shrill that reading this book is both a challenge and a drag." Jennifer Reese

Critical Summary

Carolyn Chute’s sympathetic portrayals of the rural poor evoked comparisons to Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Upton Sinclair. Yet despite her strong main characters and keen insights, critics varied in their reactions: some felt overwhelmed by Chute’s pervasive antiestablishment views, while others embraced, or were at least able to overlook, her polemics. Chute’s unconventional language, profusion of characters (although she does provide a full character list), and multiple narrators—including the former planet Pluto, God, a crow, and a television set—were not to everyone’s taste, either. But readers who don’t mind such idiosyncrasies will be rewarded with a rich and vibrant tale, "a love song to a part of America that doesn’t have much of a voice" by an "extraordinary, vivid, empathic writer" (New York Times Book Review).

Also by the Author

The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1985): In her remarkable debut, Chute illuminates a largely invisible social class by introducing readers to the poverty-stricken Bean family of rural Maine, whose members struggle with their personal demons as they endure hardship and alienation.