It’s tough to choose a Stewart O’Nan book that is better than another O’Nan book. I decided on Snow Angels because it’s the first I read and sold many copies of, and because it’s far more than a crime novel, it’s the exploration of how life falls apart, how happy families are thin disguises for what’s churning beneath, how one young boy’s life is radically altered by the events at a point in time.
The narration by the protagonist is in retrospect. Memories of 1974 in wintery West Pennsylvania are disclosed by Arthur Parkinson, now an adult, then a 15 year old trombone player in the high school band practicing a maneuver never perfected called The Whirling Tunnel in deference to the school’s nickname, The Golden Tornados. Shots ring out across the playing field. Annie Marchand, a former babysitter of Arthur’s has been killed. For unknown reasons, Annie’s life never took off the way one thought it would. Now married with a daughter, her relationship has fallen apart. So has Arthur’s parent’s marriage. For Arthur, both breakdowns are tragedies. Each story is woven in and out of one another. There is pathos and heart and humor and a realism one rarely sees in a first novel. It’s hard to believe this IS the first published full work for O’Nan, it’s so accomplished and full. Another book that came after, The Speed Queen is also extraordinary, and written in an entirely different style, quick, short prose, a thin volume, but just as full of living characters as Snow Angels. Even more astounding to me than either of those books, or his amazing Vietnam veterans story, The Names of the Dead, is the non fiction telling of the circus tent fire in Hartford Connecticut. I have never been so mesmerized, involved, and horrified by what would normally be thought of as a routine typical fire tragedy. O’Nan shows how profound and devastating a disaster such as this can be–not only on the venue and circus performers, but the entire community–the numbers of lives lost are reminiscent of the recent explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant. No area of Hartford was left unscathed. Time did little to heal those wounds.
A blurb on the back of Snow Angels is almost as profound as the story itself, and perfectly captures the theme’s essence.
“If you dig deeply enough, nearly every American town, no matter how small, conceals at least one unspeakable tragedy somewhere in the past–a story so true and sad and wrenching that even those who know it best can rarely bring themselves to talk about it.”
Don’t forget to read the entire list.