August 2008

Aysha Somasundaram


Snow, Ashes: A Novel by Alyson Hagy

Reading Snow, Ashes approaches a Sisyphean task -- a plodding, exacting and thankless undertaking. Sustained by spare, lyric writing and painterly expanses, the novel spans decades. Alyson Hagy manages to dip seamlessly from the 1940s to the mid-1990s and document ranch life, the Korean War and the vagaries of friendship and family with similar, unrelenting poetic brutality. Redemptive moments are rare and infused with ambivalence and a sense of impending doom -- fueled by desperation, alcohol or doubt.

The protagonists are lifelong friends, Fremont Adams and C.D. Hobbs, who enlist and serve together in the Korean War only to eventually return to Trumpet Bell (Adam’s family ranch) and raising sheep. Adams is the archetypical hero of Westerns -- solitary verging on antisocial, introverted, loyal, and rigid.

Hagy ably evokes the barrenness and beauty of both the landscapes and human beings who litter the passages of Snow, Ashes. The following passage is just one of many examples for her melodic prose: “[Hobbs] got out of the truck and ambled the sloped clay banks while a steady, icy wind teased at his coat collar. He pinched his salted black cap above his hairline in admiration of the unchoked plumes and wires. Dozens of fallen cottonwoods had been dragged clear but for firewood. Several of riprap had been dumped into the curves of the ditch to reduce summer erosion when the water was high.” Her characters are developed with equal delicacy and attention.

Particularly, Adams appears to a walking composite of plausible contradictions; fear, pettiness, courage and abiding decency all uneasily coexist in him. Hagy’s narration is knowing and deft, but the sheer numbing sadness, hopelessness, waste and the soul crushing incidents she describes make Snow, Ashes difficult to read, much less enjoy -- except perhaps as a cathartic exercise. Snow, Ashes, while arguably a tribute to the broken or the weary among us, would not be a easy task for either to complete.

Snow, Ashes: A Novel by Alyson Hagy
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1-55597-468-8
200 pages