In the 1960s, Hoss and Little Joe Cartwright gave their father and older brother fits on “Bonanza,” a weekly television series about a man and his sons on the American Frontier. Dick van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, he as a character in the “Dick van Dyke Show” and she portraying his happy wife, slept in separate beds and somehow were able to make a son.
And David Ascher, one of the main protagonists in Walter M. Brasch’s latest journalistic novel, was a reporter at the headwaters of his budding career, writing for a small newspaper in central California. His editor sent him to Oakland to write about soldiers heading out to Vietnam.
David got his story, and with time on his hands and opportunity for a stop across the bay, decided to see the hippies about which he had heard just enough to be curious.
His story about hometown boys going off to war ran on Page 1, and extended into the inside of the paper. The story most often characterized in mainstream media with brief, exaggerated facts, depicting free love, anti-war protest music and poetry, and flowers, was left in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco; David’s editor thought it out of place in a family newspaper.
On a parallel track, a young woman with a penchant for social justice and photography, left her personal hippie experiment and took her camera on the road. Her new career as a freelance photographer found her working mostly for unions, living with and documenting the lives of migrant farmers and other laborers, recording stories being told only superficially in mainstream media.
Ascher wrote stories about Woodstock, where thousands of young people gathered at a rock concert, and about the May 1970 Kent State University debacle at which four students were killed by National Guard soldiers called to quell an anti-Vietnam War demonstration.
Apryl Greene decided to build a school for peace and the arts, on the banks of the Susquehanna River, in northeastern Pennsylvania. The land was 40 acres her father had left her.
Ascher eventually became executive editor of a socially activist news magazine called Century. He was on tour, promoting a book he had written about the radical journalists of the Revolutionary War period, themselves a minority in a population largely comprising outright supporters of King George III and a goodly population of citizens who just didn’t want trouble.
The tour would involve “12 major cities in two weeks,” his publisher’s publicist assured him. When he met Apryl Green, at the Marshfield County Spring Festival in northeastern Pennsylvania, Ascher was busy fighting boredom. Industry had left the town years ago and the annual festival had become for townspeople an affirmation of community – and most of the festival-goers who actually stopped at Ascher’s table were “just looking” on their way to look at the multitude of crafts and the quilt up for raffle.
Though no one suspected it, a Middle Eastern dictator, of whom some had heard but few took notice, was about to send his army into Kuwait, and in that action precipitate what became known as the First Gulf War, alternatively as Operation Desert Storm.
Apryl stopped at Ascher’s table, a Nikon F-2 and a couple of lenses slung from her neck. She knew who he was; she subscribed to Century and had read his book. His book publisher had hired her to shoot pictures of him at the book signing.
Ascher quickly discovered two important traits about Apryl Green. One: she knew her history, including such tidbits as the Union army being sent to destroy a Confederate newspaper in Marshfield County, long after the Revolutionary War of whose radical journalists Ascher had written.
And Two: she was virtually incapable of maintaining a conversation on a single topic, as she skipped, like a child bouncing from rock to rock across a creek, from history to pointing out the shortcomings of working journalists, to a discussion of whether a 50s/60s cover band called The Polymer Pterodactyl might be making a statement playing in a fall festival in a conservative former mill town.
Oh, and Three: She planned to build a school, and she had to do it soon. Her dad had placed on his gift a requirement that if Apryl did not do something with the land by next spring, his will would give it to another group. And she better get started. If construction was not begun before the first snow, it would not begin early enough to be completed by the spring deadline.
But Apryl also has been lax in making payments. She always arranged to catch up, but this time is different. Suddenly the bank has decided to foreclose, and then be absorbed into a larger bank, which sold the mortgage … .
That’s when Apryl and Ascher ran into a cast of shadow companies, bureaucrats and government leaders – an owner of an electronics company in Massachusetts, a director in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Marshfield County commissioners – all conspiring, not necessarily all of them knowingly, to confiscate her parcel through a sequence of mostly legal chicanery that would result in a nuclear plant being constructed where Apryl plans her school.
It turns out, there is a way government can take land, using eminent domain, and turn it to private use.
“If I were to do a novel,” Ascher/Brasch reflect after one of Apryl’s challenges, “it wouldn’t be a pot-boiler. It’d be character-driven. Probably start slow and deliberate. Set a base. Introduce the characters, hold back the plot. Readers wouldn’t even know where the story was going.”
But they would want to – I wanted to – so they would keep reading, following the quickly moving fabric of history and truths, of establishment and counter-culture, of the ways in which regular people live regular lives, where nobody dies, there are no car chases through narrow Parisian-style streets.
Ascher and Apryl, it turns out, are from our town. We know them from the headlines in our local newspapers. We know them from the reporters who, beset by deadlines and the next story, miss the part about how well people like Apryl are being screwed by the government in the headline segment on the 6 o’clock TV news.
“Journalists never experience life,” she tells him. “You just report it.”
But this time, Ascher – and Brasch’s readers – do experience it. Brasch infuses decades of experience as an award-winning social issues journalist in a multi-generational tale, from the 1960s counter-culture to the corporate and governmental machinations of 1991. The story ends the day before the First Gulf War begins.
And therein lies the plot.
Before the First Snow, by Walter M. Brasch
298 pp. Greeley & Stone
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