Parenthood is defined by many as the genesis for the best years of their lives. Hashtags and aphorisms abound on Father’s and Mother’s Day that the day one became a parent is the “best day of their lives.”
To be fair, for many becoming a parent truly is the best day of their lives. A day for love, loyalty, sacrifice, and lifelong selflessness.
For others, it begins an era of self-realization in which the boundaries feel metallic, a permanent stifling. All the previous positive feelings still apply, but they’re wrapped in the metamorphosis of self to servant. A death of self.
Amy Hassinger’s After the Dam explores not only this commonly overlooked contrast, but also the personal paradigmatic elitism all have about their views on the world. All believe their views are right—-justified—-and others are usually wrong somehow. Other views are not bad, per se, but they’re misguided, politely mistaken. Every single one of us does this, and while it is perfectly normal (predictable, probably) it can often lead to severe misunderstanding and disappointment.
And so begins the deterioration of the dam.
For more on After the Dam, published by Red Hen Press in paperback, September 2016, please continue.
Rachel and Michael married eight years ago on her grandmother (Grand’s) Farm in upstate Wisconsin. They’ve recently welcomed their first child, a daughter, Diedre, into the world, when they find out that Grand is not doing well. She is slipping into dementia quicker than anyone anticipated, and she is suspected of planning to heir the Farm to her nurse, Diane, which the family sees as a classic case of caretaker manipulation. Rachel’s father wants her to investigate. She is initially hesitant, but decides to leave in the middle of the night with Diedre, not telling Michael, to visit the Farm and go back to her childhood memory of home.
Split into five books, the novel spans the month of June in 2003. One book flashes back, but the primary time piece is the early oughts, early summer. The conflict between family members and friends is directly paralleled by the deterioration of the Old River Dam. Side-by-side these institutions operate as regulators, and when everyone is so understandably right all of the time, the pressure is bound to need a release, just like the force of water can only be withheld for so long.
Within the family dynamics of Grand, Diane, and Michael is also the transition to motherhood for Rachel. Readers see, through her own development, how one can love her daughter but also feel completely trapped by the realities of responsibility over another’s life. The inherent search for oneself is often instigated by the loss of part of oneself to another, and that is certainly true for Rachel. She doesn’t realize just how little she’s been herself until she is not allowed to have that freedom, at least in the same way, after becoming a parent.
The plot of the novel is compelling and insightful, but Hassinger’s magician-like qualities extend beyond.
Hassinger’s strength throughout the novel is that she coerces readers to remember paradigms are always right by the bearer of the perspective. Readers switch perspectives between Rachel, Diane, Grand, Joe (Diane’s son and former lover of Rachel), and Michael. Each person is given such depth of character, such empathy, that by the end of the novel readers associate and become friends with all five. They’re all so right in their ways, even when they’re not. (Aren’t we all?) Hassinger is a master of implanting empathy, perfecting the passage of pathos.
I cannot personally pinpoint one particular aspect that made me love this book. I cannot say that I was so caught up in the drama of the family that I couldn’t quit reading (although I kind of was). But I truly loved this book. The paragraphs were poetic, lyrical spotlights on the overlooked delicacies of life. The characters uncovered parts of myself that I didn’t know existed. The attention to detail Hassinger gave to her characters will make you question your ability to pay attention to your own friends, your family, strangers.
This book is worthy of your time.