From the incomparable Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley is the story of a woman coming of age, unearthing secrets about her family and her town, and learning surprising truths about herself.
For generations the Millers have lived in Miller’s Valley, Pennsylvania. In fact, the farm on which Mimi Miller grew up was in her father’s family for more than 200 years. At age 65, Mimi relates the story of her life with both intimacy and honesty. As a child, she eavesdropped on her parents’ conversations and quietly observed the people around her, discovering how toxic family secrets can be, the dangers of gossip, the flaws of marriage, the inequalities of friendship, and the risks of passion, loyalty, and love. Mimi realized that “home can be a place where it’s just as easy to feel lost as it is to feel content.”
Miller’s Valley is a study of family, memory, loss, and, ultimately, discovery of finding true identity and a new vision of home. Mimi notes, “No one ever leaves the town where they grew up, even if they go.” In Miller’s Valley, Quindlen reminds her readers that the place where you grew up can disappear, as can the people in it, but all will live on in your heart forever.
The beauty and strength of Anna Quindlen’s writing lies in its understated simplicity. Once again, she delivers a fictional account of the lives of ordinary people with a powerful message but does so with quiet eloquence. Quindlen says that, as a fan of Charles Dickens, each of her novels has its genesis in the same two impulses as Dickens’ work. “One is a great social welfare issue and the other is a very intimate down to the ground exploration of character.” So with Miller’s Valley, she wanted to write about “the explication of character, . . . over time, about the growth of a girl into an older women during a period when opportunities for women opened up so much. . . . And so the great social welfare impulse for me was this idea of the government being able to swoop in and take control of your life in a variety of ways.”
Mimi is 11 years old and Miller’s Valley opens in the mid-1960’s in small town America. Miller’s Valley is the kind of place where you can’t run a quick errand or even cross a street without seeing people who know everything about your life and family, and vice versa. Mimi’s two older brothers, Eddie and Tommy, are opposites. Eddie is a serious young man and good student, while Tommy barely manages to graduate from high school but has charm to spare, and knows it. Mimi’s mother, Miriam, works the night shift as a registered nurse at the local hospital and her father, Bud, farms and operates a handyman business. Miriam’s sister, Ruth, lives alone in a smaller house on the property which she never leaves. Mimi never utters the word, but Ruth suffers from agoraphobia, although the date of onset is unclear. Mimi recalls how Ruth just started going out less and less, with her mother mentioning to her father at one point that she didn’t seem to have left the house for at least a month. Eventually she just stopped going out altogether, so Miriam and the family bring her groceries and supplies. Miriam is openly critical of and hostile toward Ruth, for reasons Mimi can’t understand, especially given that her mother is a nurse who so compassionately cares for others.
Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.~~ James Baldwin ~~
Everyone for miles around talks about the looming possibility that their homes and way of life will be lost forever. The government plans to literally drown Miller’s Valley by exercising its power of eminent domain to acquire the residents’ properties, a total of 6,400 acres, and create a reservoir by using the nearby dam to divert the river. As it is, the valley floods fairly regularly and Mimi describes a couple of times when her family was forced to evacuate. Except for Ruth, who retreated to the attic to wait for the floodwater downstairs to recede.
Why a story about the potential destruction of homes in order to build a reservoir? Quindlen heard many years ago about a proposed “we’re-taking-your-town-from-you, large-scale [dam] project” that never came to fruition. “And it stayed with me for such a long time,” she says. “I’m a person with a hyper-annuated sense of home, a real nester, and the idea that somebody could come in and take your home was terrifying to me, and it lived inside me for decades and I think to some small extent informed what I wrote about in Miller’s Valley.” Indeed, in Quindlen’s deft hands, the water is an effective metaphor for what is really happening in Mimi’s life and world. She does not want to leave her family’s farm because she can’t imagine living anywhere else. “I knew there was a world outside. I just had a hard time imagining it,” Mimi says. Her father is committed to the land his family has owned for generations, but Mimi finds her mother’s unwillingness to fight for their home shocking. Quindlen observes, “It’s the ’60s and ’70s. Every small town in America is facing an end to its way of life, whether it’s going to be the main industry leaving, all of its young people moving elsewhere.” The wheels of government grind slowly, however, and as homeowners slowly relinquish their properties, Mimi becomes an outstanding high school student. In the process of completing a special project about another town, Andover, that suffered the same fate, Mimi learns the horrible truth about the methods being employed by the government and wrestles with whether or not to reveal what she has learned.
Time passes and nothing remains exactly the same. Tommy enlists in the military, serves in Vietnam, and like so many other Veterans, returns irrevocably changed. Eddie marries and moves away, and circumstances dictate that Mimi study at the community college while helping her mother manage the farm, while still seeing Steven, her boyfriend of several years. That is, until another series of events make it possible for Mimi to study at the University of Pennsylvania and pursue goals she hadn’t really dared dream about. It is then that Mimi finally experiences freedom she has never known, recalling that “[o]n paper it wasn’t the best time of my life. Except for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was getting somewhere. I wasn’t standing still anymore, I was moving.” As for Steven, who, like Tommy, is charismatic, Mimi realizes that “charm is like tinsel without the tree. What’s tinsel without the tree? Shredded tinfoil.”
Mimi graduates from college and embarks upon her own path. Her mother and Ruth leave the farm, and the government has its way. Mimi’s chilling descriptions of the drowning of Miller’s Valley mirror what happens in life. Although “everyone always thought you’d flip a switch and there’d all of a sudden be forty feet of water,” the process takes time. The dam is redirected to hold more water back until it flows down the creek bed and turns into a river. In actuality, it takes months for the water to run hard and fast enough to reach a planned level of 75 feet, giving area animals time to flee. Mimi hears the explanation from Eddie with great discomfort. “The water would come up and cover the houses, the barns, the fences, the old swing sets, the bales of hay, and the cornfields now laying fallow, and I didn’t want to hear any of it. A couple of crews had already taken down the trees around the valley lip so that when the water got to where it was finally going to settle, the surface would be smooth for fifteen feet or so, and I didn’t want to hear any of it. Below that everything else would start to rot and dissolve. It would take years and years to happen but it would happen.” And it did happen, as “one night after dark they closed the locks on the dam and began to channel the water in, slowly at first, and then faster, harder, so that on the evening of the third day the people in town said they felt a faint tremor and thought Miller’s Valley was having its first earthquake. Which I guess was true, in a way.”
There are other tremors in Quindlen’s rich narrative, as well, including the revelation of one secret that is sure to leave every reader utterly incredulous. Yet in Quindlen’s skillful telling of the story, it makes complete sense. And answers many questions. Quindlen wisely, and characteristically, however, leaves many questions unanswered, relying upon readers to draw their own conclusions . . . or not, depending on their preference.
Although the pace of Miller’s Crossing is even and the story never bogs down, it is not a fast-paced adventure. Rather, like the flow of an undammed, unregulated river, the action appropriately speeds up and slows down as does water rushing downhill, or around or over a downed log. In other words, Mimi’s reflections unfold at a pace akin to real life.
By the end of the story, Mimi is 65 years old and Miller’s Valley, like so many people in her life, has been gone a long time. People “look out over the place where we all lived and it’s just water to them, as far as the eye can see. I guess it’s just water to me, too.” And Mimi has learned that “no one ever leaves the town where they grew up, not really, even if they go.” Its a beautiful lesson from a master storyteller. Miller’s Valley is a stunning, mesmerizing work of quiet brilliance, deserving of my highest, most enthusiastic recommendation.
You might also enjoy my review of Anna Quindlen’s