'Snow Angels': tragedy in a small town

January 31, 1995|By Kim Wesley | Kim Wesley,Special to The Sun

Stewart O'Nan wastes no time in revealing the pivotal event in his novel "Snow Angels": Within the first few pages, we find out a baby sitter has been murdered. But this story is nothing like the typical paperback thriller. "Snow Angels" is a starkly beautiful, thought-provoking novel about a small-town tragedy that transforms one boy's life.

Arthur Parkinson, 15, is marching with his high school band across a football field when he hears the gunshots that kill his former baby sitter. That same winter, he is traumatized by another event when his father moves out of the house.

Throughout the course of the novel, Mr. O'Nan expertly weaves the two story lines together.

One tragedy is told through the eyes of the adult Arthur Parkinson as he relives the year of his parents' divorce and tries to make sense of the events that overshadow his adolescence. Another tragedy, the tale of the murder and the events leading up to it, is revealed through the voices of the baby sitter, Annie; her estranged husband, Glenn, and several other characters who live in the town of Butler, Pa.

By the end of the book, we come to understand how the Parkinsons' divorce, the baby sitter's disastrous life and untimely death, and the end of Arthur's youth are interconnected. However, the force urging us to read on and come to that conclusion is not the events of the story or even one of the characters. Rather, it's the style and the imagery Mr. O'Nan uses to tell the story.

Like Russell Banks' harsh, vivid descriptions in the novels "Trailerpark" and "Continental Drift," Stewart O'Nan's portrait of life in Butler is blunt, unsentimental and, above all, real. We are allowed to see Arthur for what he is -- a self-proclaimed "longhair" who smokes marijuana with his friends, works after school at a local fast-food restaurant, and, before the divorce, sits up at night listening to his parents fight.

The character of the baby sitter is also honestly portrayed. We are witness to her actions and the events that befall her, not only as outside observers but also as privileged seers who reside in Annie's mind and in those who watch her. We see Annie's extramarital affair, her separation from her husband and her strained relationship with her mother through several different perspectives. Ultimately, the murder mystery is solved, the blank spaces are filled in, and yet Mr. O'Nan does not tell us how to think about the tragedy. We are left to judge for ourselves.

The title "Snow Angels" evokes the sense of childhood innocence and hope that is gradually destroyed as the novel unfolds. Mr. O'Nan subtly uses this bleak, winter setting to give us a sense of stillness and helplessness in the face of tragedy. The old blue water tower that dominates the landscape and looms over Annie's house demands that we attach some meaning to it. And like the water tower, the sound of trucks on the highway, the thick wet snow around the drainage ditches, and the bittersweet smell of cigarette smoke all take on a kind of emotional value. They add to the silent void, which we must fill with our own knowledge and experience.

Mr. O'Nan's conclusion is the only frustrating narrative move in the whole novel. It consists of a reflection made by the adult Arthur Parkinson on the lessons learned that winter when he was 15. But its ambiguity leaves the reader dissatisfied. Ultimately, we are disappointed that we will never find out what happens to Arthur later in life. If a sequel were published, I would read it, although I'm not certain Arthur's present life would hold the same fascination as the tragic memories that haunt his past.

Ms. Wesley is a writer who lives in Baltimore.


Title: "Snow Angels"

Author: Stewart O'Nan

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 305 pages, $20

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