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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

As It Is on Earth


As It Is on Earth, Peter Wheelwright’s debut novel, is among the richest - and most challenging - novels I have read in a long while.  The author’s prose style is one that I often describe as “dense,” in the sense that there is a tremendous amount of related information and detail packed into and around the book’s basic plot. 

The Thatcher family’s story is New England’s story.  The family, having been in Maine for twelve generations, has helped to write much of the state’s history.  They are an old family, somewhat in decline, if truth were told, and as the twentieth century stumbles toward its close, Taylor Thatcher wants to make sense of it all.  He is a thirty-year-old science professor at the University of Hartford, but because the class he teaches is less about science than it is about the sociology of science, college administrators are unsure where he fits into the school hierarchy.  First-year professor Taylor is popular with his students and faculty friends, but much less so with his department head.  Things are not going well for Taylor on that front, and he senses that his stay at the university will be a short one.

Taylor is less concerned with his professional problems, however, than he is with the welfare of his eccentrically brilliant younger brother, for whom he feels completely responsible.  However, why he feels such a keen sense of responsibility for Bin, is only one of the mysteries that will be solved by the book’s ending because, as Taylor explores the origins of his immediate family, he will learn how little of what he thinks he knows about them is true.

Peter M. Wheelwright
His father, a country doctor known to everyone as Deacon, was a cold, silent man who barely spoke to his two sons.  When Taylor’s mother drowned two years after his birth, Deacon Thatcher married Lily’s twin sister, Rose, and fathered a son by his second wife (Bin is Taylor’s cousin as well as his brother).  Tragically, Rose died in giving birth to Bin, and the boys were raised by the loving Cajun/Indian woman Deacon hired to run the “farm” household.

As It Is on Earth is the story of a man in search of his family, a journey during which Taylor Thatcher will “rediscover” a family not much like the one in his head.  It is a painful journey for the Thatchers and those closest to them, but it is a journey offering rewards that make it worth taking.  Taylor’s search for his family origins leads him places he never expected to travel – and the reader gets to share that wild ride.

The pace of Wheelwright’s prose is, at times, slowed by his highly detailed approach to the history of New England, Mexican and American Indian tribe history, the brothers’ love for astronomy, religious history, etc., but it all comes together beautifully in the end.  His characters are real because, not only do we understand who they are and what motivates them, we learn why, and how, they got to be the people they are.

No, As It Is on Earth is not an easy read, but its payoff makes it all worth the effort required.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
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