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Book Review - The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis

Human Nature

The Thin Place
by
Kathryn Davis

Published by Little, Brown and Company

Review by W. R. Greer


Non-human life has existed on the earth for millions of years. The animal and plant world endlessly repeats the birth-life-death cycle with their innate nature to guide them. Their lives follow their prescribed cycle without contemplating either their history or their own mortality. They attempt to modify their own small corner of the world to gain an infinitesimal advantage for procreation before they die. Humans think they have more control of their world, but as hard as they might try to break out of this cycle, they can't escape the inevitability of their own death.

In The Thin Place, Kathryn Davis tells the story of a few months in the history of Varennes, a small, rural New England town near the Canadian border. It begins with three 12-year old girls, friends since kindergarten, finding an apparently dead man on the beach of the local lake. Sunny, the attractive girl, and Lorna, the fanciful girl who wants to be a writer, leave to get help. Mees stays with the body, and while touching its cheek, brings him back to life. While everyone else assumes that Carl Banner wasn't quite dead yet when the girls found him, Mees knows the truth.

Sunny and Lorna ran to the Murdock house to call 911. Andrea Murdock still can't forgive Carl Banner for his behavior toward her. Her husband, Daniel, is preparing for another anthropological trip to northern Canada. Sunny's parents own the Crockett Home for the Aged. 92-year old Helen Zeebrugge is one its residents, who finds most of her few moments of happiness when her oft-married son, Piet, visits her. Piet is dating Chloe (who refuses to talk about her ex-husband), although he is also attracted to Billie, who is one of the ushers at the church, where Richard Jenkins is the pastor. His own daughter has stopped attending church, choosing boys and illicit drugs rather than her father's religion. George Mason teaches the three girls in sixth grade and is leading the class through their rehearsals for the spring musical. Lorna's dad is a lawyer. Mees' dad is dead.

Part of the joy in Kathryn Davis' novel is how she accurately captures the rhythms and interactions in a small town. The three girls know, at least subconsciously, that this is their last year together. They'll go off to middle school the next year, taking different classes, gathering new friends, and eventually going in different directions. Sunny is used to being the center of attention, and uses her budding sexuality to her advantage. Lorna writes stories and fantasies in her mind. Mees struggles with her gift, feeling close to Jesus, but also feeling just outside the rest of humanity because of it. The three of them are inseparable this last summer together, their lives intertwined for whatever celebrations or tragedies are to come during those months. Some of the adults in town are happily married, some think they are, and some are cheating on their spouses. Grudges are held, dinners are shared, and all the lives of the townspeople continue to merge and diverge.

In addition to the human rhythms, The Thin Place also records the interactions of the animals in the town. The dogs get loose and kill some chickens. Beavers continually dam a creek, much to the consternation of some of the human residents. Even the plants have their thoughts. Kathryn Davis lets these plants and animals offer their perspective to the novel. Mees' dog, Margaret, is a loyal dog, a contented dog, but one that cannot deny her nature to do things dogs do, even though her owners try to teach her differently.

It is this sense of nature, human or otherwise, that runs through this novel. Just as it's in the dogs' nature to run through the woods and invade a chicken pen, or in the beavers' nature to dam the creek, it's part of human nature to do all the inscrutable things humans do. Most of the characters in The Thin Place are trying to fill holes in their lives with what they believe will make them happy. For Kathy Crockett, it's using her wealth and power to get her way. For Piet Zeebrugge, it's finding women with whom to share his time and their beds. For Daniel Murdock, it's time alone in the frozen north. Yet none of them, whether fish or dog or lichens or human, can escape their own mortality. Humans are the only creatures that fear death, and are unprepared for the inevitable tragedies that will take lives earlier than anticipated.

Kathryn Davis looks at life from an epochal perspective too. Glaciers have covered Varennes five times during the earth's history. Many species have come and gone, and humans have been here only a short period of time.

If the earth is just a ball, no one place on it is any more important than another. Human time is much too thin to be discerned. The slow steady march of geologic time is punctuated with catastrophes.
In this thin slice of time, the inhabitants of Varennes, both in modern time and centuries before, struggle with their lives punctuated by catastrophes. In The Thin Place, many of these catastrophes are caused by humans, and to her chagrin, Mees can't undo them all. At the center of it all, Mees and her dog Margaret, are the soul of this novel, both slaves to their nature.

This is a beautiful novel, moving back and forth with the rhythms of life and nature, and moving in and out of the lives of its characters in Varennes. Life in this small town rings true with its familiarity, and even the petty faults and minor celebrations of life touch an inner chord. This is neither an optimistic nor pessimistic novel, neither happy nor sad, it just explores life. Happiness, sadness, and catastrophe are unavoidable facets of life, and all of these are present in The Thin Place. Kathryn Davis' novel comes at you from all these perspectives, its little mysteries unfolding with its surprises, with the occasional jab at the heart and offerings of food for thought. Its characters fight, love, struggle, explore, and die.

The Thin Place shows us that life, in both its beauty and complications, marches forward while dragging each of us inexorably along with it during our own thin place in time. Kathryn Davis' novel is simply wonderful.

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