“The Flicker of Old Dreams: Hope and Despair in a Small Town” by Susan Henderson
NOTE: This book is a finalist in the High Plains Book Awards in Fiction and Woman Writer.
“The Flicker of Old Dreams” glimmers with haunting honesty. Author Susan Henderson tells of Mary Crampton living in Petroleum, a small town in central Montana, after the fatal granary accident of a high school athletic hero. His death forces the closing of the business, the town’s major revenue source, and the exiled departure of the victim’s younger brother Robert Golden, blamed for the death.
Mary, who lives and works with her mortician father, feels isolation amongst the ranchers and farmers in her community, but discovers, as an embalmer, satisfaction in dressing up those who have passed on. She reflects, “What I hope for each body that comes to me is to add something that gives a surprise burst of life.” Even the tormented finds a flicker of joy.
Unfortunately, sadness mostly reigns, especially over her father as he hangs on to his interminable grief for Mary’s mother who died when Mary was born. While never knowing her mother, she “was gone long before I knew what death was so, for me, she is an abstract loss, a game of guessing at the life I might have lived.” Despair shows no way out.
Robert suddenly returns to take care of his terminally ill mother. Mary’s friendship with him creates shock for the town while sparking a desire to leave the place she has known for thirty years. She experiences firsthand how humans can judge and challenge one another.
The images and sentiments Henderson creates juxtapose hope with raw reality. Even through the simple act of walking up the road to the rimrocks, Mary shares, “Sometimes I climb to the top to watch the sun rise and animals forage for food, although my goal this morning is just to put some distance between me and home.” The thoughts presented on such a basic level allow for deeper reflection.
“The Flicker of Old Dreams” is compelling and poignantly tells the life-long human struggle to belong and to be understood.
Stella Fong is host to “Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region” on Yellowstone Public Radio, author of “Historic Restaurants of Billings” and “Billings Food,” and a contributor to “The Last Best Plates” column for the Billings Gazette and Montana Standard.