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gone-away lake

19 november 2011

Elizabeth Enright was a much-honored 20th-century writer of genteel background (she was the niece of Frank Lloyd Wright) and considerable talent. That her 1957 Newbery Honor novel Gone-Away Lake is now dated doesn't detract from its appeal, because it is a book about how things become dated. Cousin-protagonists Julian and Portia discover a world preserved in time, and learn to appreciate the past by becoming physically steeped in its presence.

Gone-Away Lake resembles Katherine Paterson's later classic Bridge to Terabithia: boy and girl share a secret realm in the woods, away from family supervision. Gone-Away Lake also resembles enchanted realms in other books like Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. But with key differences: Gone-Away Lake is neither supernatural nor ultimately fraught. Dangers are few; adults are present and never in conflict with children, and there's a happy ending. (There's also a sequel, Return to Gone-Away, which I know nothing about.)

But Gone-Away Lake is a type of Neverland. People grow old there, but stay childish: Aunt Minnehaha and Uncle Pindar seem to have been 75 forever, and are "well-preserved"; at one point the children simply conclude that the old sister and brother will live forever, or near enough. Portia and Julian stumble upon the world where Minnehaha and Pindar live in isolation, self-sufficiency, and complete harmony. Happily ever after is where Gone-Away Lake starts from; and things only get better.

By this point you may be expecting the book to provoke insulin shock, but it's curiously balanced between lyric and prose. Minnehaha and Pindar are happy, but the world they belonged to has fallen into ruin; they need an influx of energy to make Gone-Away Lake habitable again. (The key achievement in the book is a building of a bridge, both literally and symbolically connecting past to present.)

Development that effaces a landscape is a haunting theme in other children's books, like Jane Yolen's Letting Swift River Go. In Yolen's book, a community disappears underwater when a dam is built. In Enright's, a community is left high and dry when a dam is built; too little water proves as destructive as too much. Tarrigo, the name the lake had when it existed, was an extravagant summer resort for the rich of several American states. Minnehaha and Pindar were children there in the 1890s; barely touched on, but perceptible, is the intervening transformation of America, physically and culturally, by war, depression, and economic expansion.

Julian and Portia, our young heroes, are from distinctly upper-middle-class backgrounds. They are the kind of kids who can be packed off to a summer home while their parents vacation in Europe. (Or rather Portia's do; she's packed off to Julian's home.) Privilege oozes from the texture of Enright's language: a cat is "limp as somebody's old fur piece" (15), and walking on moss in the woods is "like walking on wet mink" (77). But the world of long-ago Tarrigo is far more opulent. Its excesses are epitomized by awful Mrs. Brace-Gideon, in the 1890s, buying new cats every year and chloroforming them at the end of summer. (At least till the 1890s children find a way to foil her.) The spectacular ruins of extravagantly furnished houses make the comfortable 1950s, by contrast, seem like an age of epigones.

Gone-Away Lake insists that the past, and its surviving representatives, are essentially benign. Just a few years later nobody would be trusting anybody over 30, but for a brief, shining, wholly imaginary summer, all generations lived in peace together in Elizabeth Enright's prose.

Enright, Elizabeth. Gone-Away Lake. Illustrated by Beth & Joe Krush. 1957. San Diego: Harcourt, 1990.