American Sycamore crafts a world bound to the winding, burbling Susquehanna River. A world where time seems to stand still, the inhabitants armoring themselves in paranoia against the evils of a rapidly changing world. The book is a fascinating exploration of the intertwining of normalcy and insanity that flows through the lives of the character, like the Susquehanna River that flows throughout the book. It raises, explores, and leaves open questions of what is normal, what is safe, and what is sane.
The story, like the river that serves to tie the threads of the book together—both geographically and metaphorically—swirls constantly toward the event that dominates the life of young Billy Sycamore and his sister, Alice, moving constantly through it, but never beyond it. Indeed, the river, as a metaphor, is evident and powerful throughout the book; the river is always moving, but always in the same place. It is dangerous but, at the same time, a place of calm and relaxation.
The voice of the book and the stories told within it are familiar and welcoming, perhaps due to the timeless antics of young people near bodies of water. At the same time, though, they become uncomfortable, whether mildly unsettling or deeply disturbing, as eyes of the salesman at the door flit across the valuables on the mantelpiece or the attentions of a friendly stranger in a diner edge constantly, creepily toward pedophilia while the mother sits oblivious in the next seat. The result is a portrait of a place on the river that wants to be safe, and comfortable, and, isolated, might be so idyllic. Denial is a comfortable option when it happens to someone else, but the inhabitants of that place cannot control what comes drifting down the river to intrude on and forever change their lives.
Overall, American Sycamore is an interesting and deeply thought-provoking read.
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