Kathryn Schwille on Kevin McIlvoy’s novel “At the Gate of All Wonder”
Samantha Peabody is a bioacoustician, an oddball recluse living in the Pisgah National Forest who runs a year-long “Sonic Adventure Program,” taking children into the woods for one week a month to teach them to hear what others ignore. She’s at the center of Kevin McIlvoy’s original new novel, At the Gate of All Wonder (Tupelo Press), a journal-like recollection of her year with a pair of particularly sturdy, intuitive children.
A trip into the forest with Samantha Peabody is no ordinary adventure. This one is a bread-crumb trail to the heart’s strange workings, cast against Pisgah’s sounds and the limits of ear and soul.
“In the thickets near us, finches split and spat and spewed cedar berries…we began to hear the in-whispering of tree boluses, the inverted echoing cups of stones having the smallest hiding spaces beneath them, the resonant silences in empty bird and wasps nests. After hearing the rhythm of the earth’s soft-palate sounds, we could hear the timbre of its hard-palate sounds: the empty shells and keels and the tight-fisted fleshless ribs of dead creatures no bigger than seeds and pods.”
The forest hums with music, evoked by McIlvoy’s lyrical word play and sentences that swell and bump against each other with energy and surprise. Beneath the soundscape, revenge, estrangement, betrayal and devotion crawl through the novel in a tip-of-the-iceberg treatment that yields a disturbing story. The children’s mother is the divorce lawyer Peabody hired after her husband’s affair: “Carla murdered his spirit exactly as I had asked.” When they divorced, Peabody kept his precious books, “a punch to the Adam’s apple.” Husband Robert did not stand a chance.
As a teacher, Peabody is lovable but cranky, with high expectations for the children, aged six and eight. “If one of you can tell me what the buzzing noise is I will not eat your portions of our crackers later today.” Nothing is easy. The children camp in the cold, they must not read. The Sonic Adventure includes an excursion through February fog to The Place of Nothing There.
Evoking myth, ghosts and the enchanted woods of fairy tales, At the Gate of All Wonder is, like all of McIlvoy’s work, a marvel of language. “The spring foliage around and above our campsite muted certain distant sounds and encapsulated us as if we were silky chestnuts. The senses fuse when one is held in the rose-velvet lining that is contained in the prickly bur of a very cold March. The sound and soundlessness inside our tent was isolating, it was pungent, tightening our scalps, reissuing cidery and sour tastes in our mouths.”
At the Gate of All Wonder is a layered tale that bears examination, and reward is in the re-reading. What a sharp-eyed reader finds in this book today may not be what she finds tomorrow. There is inspiration in these pages. A reader might want to keep it by her side and see what shows up.
Join us at Charlotte Lit on Wednesday, November 7 from 7 to 8:30 pm for “I Went Out to the Hazel Wood”— A Reading & Conversation about Place, with Kevin McIlvoy and Kathryn Schwille. This free event features two writers whose recent books are set in forests. They come together to talk about place as a generative force for storytellers. The Pisgah National Forest became the engine for McIlvoy’s remarkable At the Gate of Wonder. Much of Schwille’s evocative What Luck, This Life is set in the East Texas woods. Join them for a discussion of how location can become what Eudora Welty called the “ground conductor” of emotion, belief and a story’s charge. Free, but space is limited, so please register here so we can save you a place.