Cascom Mountain in New Hampshire has always figured prominently in Mary Hall’s life. She spent summers there in the home that belonged to her parents, not far from the lodge where she was a summer crew member. But now both of her parents are dead, her father having died of cancer shortly after they lost her mother to a stroke, and Mary has come home to the house she now owns and the mountain that she loves. Mary has only been Mary Walker for six months, and she has brought her new husband, Michael, with her to the mountain to experience its beauty and grandeur with her, unaware that an unspeakable tragedy awaits them.
In the aftermath, Mary is alone and bereft. With no family to comfort her, she is watched over by the young summer crew members who live and work at the nearby lodge. Callie is just sixteen and her roommate Marlee a couple of years old. Crew chief Spencer is twenty-one-year-old Harvard student. Further up the mountain, Ben, the handsome fire watchman in his late twenties, lives in Up-House when he is not in the tower on the lookout for fires.
Young Tobin Gough also lives on the mountain with his father, a physician turned would-be painter. Tobin’s mother has spent the last four years living in a mental institution, but Tobin’s memories of her behavior and the abuse to which she subjected him are vivid and still trouble him. Tobin is gifted, having already graduated from high school even though he is only fifteen years old, but socially awkward because of his obsessive-compulsive behavior. Tobin spends a lot of time perched on rooftops observing rather than interacting with others.
Author Ann Joslin Williams has infused her debut novel with a number of autobiographical elements. She grew up in New Hampshire and spent a lot of time at her parents’ cabin in a remote region of the White Mountains. She says that she “spent a lot of time in the woods, carting my stuffed animals on adventures, constructing houses out of branches, and befriending boulders that looked like giant creatures. I knew my way around our land. There were shortcuts to the brook, paths that cut across the valley, logging roads leading to open fields and trails up the mountain. For the most part, I was content with the wilderness and my imagination.” While a teenager, she worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club where she and her fellow crew members told ghost stories in the evenings, “cleared trails, led hikes, cooked, cleaned, served meals, mowed, dug drainage ditches–just about anything you can think of, including search and rescue.” Her familiarity with her subject matter is evident in her lush, vivid descriptions of the beautiful, natural settings of Down from Cascom Mountain.
Mary Walker suffers the worst imaginable loss early on in the story and the rest of the book is focused upon her experiences throughout the remaining summer as she navigates through depression and mourning, and interacts with the young lodge crew members, as well as the attractive and compassionate fire watchman, Ben. Mary is at home on the mountain that she loves and knows so well, but she is completely lost. Following a freak accident, she is thrust into a life she never imagined for herself and completely paralyzed by shock and grief that is founded largely upon the future that has been robbed from her. She mourns what should have been, but will never come to pass. Being left suddenly alone on the mountain and in their home, Mary also mourns her parents anew. She longs for their support and guidance.
In many ways, my own relationship with the New Hampshire landscape has informed the way I navigate life and view the world, just as many of my own experiences have found their way into Down from Cascom Mountain, shaping events and details.~ Author Ann Joslin Williams
Callie is an idealistic, romantic, lovestruck teenager. At sixteen, she is naive but eager to experience adult love and intimacy. She feels compassion for Mary, but also idolizes and trusts her, and the two forge a friendship. Like Callie, Mary had a summer fling with the crew leader when she worked at the lodge. She explains to Callie that she never saw him or heard from him again, leaving Callie to ponder decisions that she has already made and for which she fears she will have to suffer extreme consequences. Too late, Callie learns that she can stand on her own. Callie’s story is the one disturbing and disappointing aspect of the book. Her teen-age explorations of sexuality are realistic and empathetic, but Williams resolves Callie’s plight in a manner that will outrage some readers. Worse, Williams wraps up the tale with unnecessarily inflammatory, politicized verbiage and offensive visual imagery that is at odds with an otherwise beautifully-crafted first novel.
In contrast, Tobin Gough’s touching and poignant story is handled beautifully by the author. He is the shy, ill-at-ease teenage boy every reader has met at least once. He is constantly watching others, usually perched on the highest eave of the nearest building, but is socially inept. He feels protective of Mary, and is determined to look out for her, offering to help her clear trees away from her cabin and assist in other ways. He also has a crush on her and is extremely jealous at the thought that she might spend time alone with Ben. Tobin is painfully aware that he is different from other kids his age, conscious of his obsessive-compulsive impulses and constantly trying to overcome them. He has never had an opportunity to resolve his conflicted feelings about his mother who, because of her mental disability, subjected him to abuse as a young child. Her institutionalization brought him relief from the stress of dealing with her unpredictable, quickly changing moods and sudden outbursts, but has not allowed him to reconcile the mother he loves with the monster he remembers. Through Mary’s friendship and a near-tragic event at the Gough Farm, Tobin matures over the course of the summer and begins to heal.
Michael’s father surprises Mary by coming to the mountain to see first-hand the place where his son died. He is wrestling with his own demons, looking to find both answers and peace. His grief is palpable and gut-wrenchingly honest, as is his desire to cling to the notion that his son’s legacy will give him a second chance, an opportunity for a relationship that he can successfully navigate. The reality and depth of his loss proves inescapable, however, and like the other characters he leaves the mountain forever changed.
Down from Cascom Mountain provides a searing look into the lives of those who inhabit the mountain for one summer — what they bring with them to the mountain, what they experience while there and, most importantly, what they take away with them when the summer is over and they must return to their normal, everyday lives. Williams evokes lasting emotional responses to her readers, ultimately using the setting to illustrate that, although the course of the life we have planned can be, in one brief instant, forever altered, the human spirit is resilient and, like the mountain, constantly renews itself, season after season.