Summer People and The Arsonist

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.
— Joan Didion

I am a huge fan of Sue Miller. Starting with The Good Mother, I’ve read every novel she’s written. She has a beautiful way of making the description, the dialogue, the narrative seem so effortless and without tricks. As Maya Angelou famously said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” And Miller has done it again and again over ten novels.

Her latest, The Arsonist, doesn’t disappoint. It has all the familiar Miller-esque qualities, mainly the search for our true self in the person we present to other people and the self we feel rattling inside our bones. Her favorite subject matter, the family, is front and center with all their individual complications and rivalries. But it is the setting in The Arsonist that especially resonated with me in this new book.

After fifteen years as a relief worker, Frankie Rowley comes back to New Hampshire where her parents have retired and are now living in their summer home. Soon after her arrival someone starts setting fires to the houses of the summer people. The people who hire the locals to clean their homes and cut the grass in the summer and store their boats in the winter. The kind of people who, after Labor Day, head to other homes in other communities taking their money with them.

I am one of the summer people. For most of late spring until mid-October I live in our lake house in northern Michigan. I feel like a regular in the community, but I am not. I have a library card, pay taxes, and collect mail, but I am not a local. Once the lake turns a steely gray and the flowers in the window boxes are hit with frost and die, I hightail it outta here to our house downstate. I am like one of those people in Miller’s book who live a conspicuously dual existence while reaping the rewards of two locales. I am a certain kind of person while living on the lake. Another in the brick house on the cul de sac in our subdivision downstate. I come and go sometimes feeling like a permanent visitor in my own life.

And lucky. And, I know, maybe I’m reading too much into something that is not a problem, but a gift. A gift to be able to think about any of this at all.

But I loved that Sue Miller thinks about this idea, too. About the moral responsibility we all have to our environment and the people living in it whether you’re somewhere for a week or six months. In The Arsonist, Bud Jacobs, a former Washington reporter, ditches his big-time job to own and edit the local paper. In vintage Miller territory, Bud and Frankie’s relationship, while loving and passionate, swirls with questions about staying put somewhere and making it home, as Bud has done, or feeding that hunger to flee as is Frankie’s way of handling commitment.

The novel leaves the reader feeling unsettled. Maybe that’s the best word to describe how hard is it to transition or leap into a new identity that matches the place you’re in, and the constant struggle not to feel like a stranger in a strange land. But there does come a point when you turn the corner and see the familiar, feel like this is where you’re suppose to be.

 “Then things were quiet. Quiet in a way they never were in the summer, when the summer people moved in and out of town, shopping and visiting with one another. When the kids appeared and disappeared all day in waves, going to the pool, or swooping through on their bikes, or taking up some project on the green itself….It was quiet, though Bud knew that there were those like him, at work in the old white houses around the green or up in the hills, and he found himself thinking about them, about all of them, doing their jobs. There was a publisher with a tiny press in his barn. There was a weaver, a potter. There was the veterinarian, whose office and kennels were behind his house. Bud had the odd sense as he moved around his own house—making another cup of coffee, standing in the kitchen looking over at the hills, returning to the notes and papers on his desk—of being among them, somehow. Of being of them. Of them, in a way he hadn’t felt before.”