Review: The Disappearing Shore by Roberta Park

September 8, 2020

bookcovrThe Disappearing Shore
By Roberta Park
Paperback, 5″ x 8″, 147 pp., $7.99.
Also available for $2.99 in various ebook formats from online booksellers such as Amazon, Apple iBooks and Barnes & Noble.
CreateSpace, Mar. 2019.

For a book that can be breezed through in a couple of hours, this pseudonymously written novella manages to plumb the modern-day human dilemma with surprising depth and emotion. It begins with a series of journal entries by characters from our present day. Then the narrative shifts to the future and we learn that those opening pieces were all part of an old book titled Underwater. A young girl is drawn to this book and endeavors to adapt it into a play, in the process sparking a profound awakening within her small community.

Ardith is the name of this young girl. The inspiration for her play comes when she and two friends are harvesting apples and spontaneously act out a scene from Underwater. It’s part of a story by another girl, one with a special fondness for animals—even those, such as deer, that are widely denigrated as pests. This girl from the past describes finding a starving doe and fawn one Thanksgiving Day and rustling them up a feast of apples, corn and oats. As Ardith and her friends reenact this scene, Ardith is uncommonly moved by it. She suddenly feels compelled to turn the entire book into a play.

Ardith is an extraordinary girl for reasons that go well beyond her creative ability. The 11-year-old granddaughter of a biologist and a philosopher, she’s at once charmingly innocent and formidably smart. Judging from her narration, which is that of an older woman looking back many years later, she will develop into a true woman of letters possessing a literature professor’s command of the English language.

The future Ardith inhabits is subtly drawn. The point of this book isn’t world building but character-scale drama and the inner life of our especially introspective narrator. Thus, the question of what may lie beyond the bucolic confines of her small town doesn’t matter. Timeline-wise, we know it’s far enough into the future for someone who was 28 in our time to be a grandparent now. (The someone in question is Ardith’s grandmother Stephanie, one of the contributors to Underwater.) And we know that today’s fossil-fueled technology and living standards are long gone, having been replaced by a return to traditional modes of living such as the multigenerational household that Ardith shares with her parents and grandmother. Little is said or needs to be said about what transpired during the transformation, beyond vague phrases like “things were falling apart.” We simply grant that the old world ran its course.

Ardith starts working on a script for her play, and as she does so there is some light humor connected with her efforts to understand early-21st-century terminology and culture. She comes to her grandmother for help with unfamiliar words, and the older woman struggles to explain many of the items in the list. “Dot com bubble. Where could I even begin?” despairs Stephanie. “And Disneyland, LSD, nuclear facilities, plasma screen TVs and tar sands. You’re going to have to use your best imagination.” In spite of Ardith’s initial enchantment, Underwater is proving to be as challenging a text as Shakespeare is for many modern-day readers. LSD and plasma screen TVs might as well be bruits and caitiffs.

Much of the story’s drama arises from the controversy surrounding Underwater. The book was a hit when it first came out and remains an institution among people of Stephanie’s generation, but it’s universally disliked by the next generation. “There we were, going down the rat hole,” Ardith can remember her father bemoaning more than once, “and people had to waste their time talking about their feelings and perspectives.” For this reason, Ardith and her growing creative team decide to keep the exact nature of their upcoming performance a secret. They conceal it even from those who likely would have championed the endeavor—such as Ardith’s grandmother—just for extra assurance against leaks. An aura of espionage prevails.

Unencumbered by her parents’ psychological attachment to their vanished way of life, Ardith approaches Underwater with the enthrallment of an archaeologist on a new dig. Regardless of the language barrier and the slew of alien concepts to which all the strange words refer, she has always treasured the book. It’s been her portal into understanding what life was like in the early 21st century, what was going on in the minds of those who were in denial about the great decline then underway and what Stephanie did to set herself apart from the somnambulant masses. When Ardith was little, her grandmother would read her passages from the book, always saving her own part—an account of a young person forsaking a cush cubicle job to become a community farmer in training—for last. Ardith has always found this fitting, deeming her grandmother’s story to be the best.

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The author evokes plenty of powerful images, but for me the most piercing is one conjured up in the mind of an early-21st-century concerned citizen (another contributor to part one) named Misha. Misha worries deeply about humankind’s ability to maintain nuclear power plants far into the future. The plants are located all over the globe, which will make some of them extremely hard to get to once we no longer have fossil-fueled transportation. The image of a technician pulling up to service one of these aging facilities in a horse and buggy has long haunted Misha. Is it possible that a painting of this scene shown at a public meeting will help shake others out of their complacency about the future of long-distance travel? Misha has often had occasion to wonder. “Here we see maintenance on a good day,” Misha would say in presenting it. “But imagine if there had been a flood or a fire. Who would rush to the rescue then?”

Rhapsodic ruminations on the phenomenon of deep time comprise one of the more fascinating motifs of the journal writings. We find one character marveling at what “old-timers” fungi are. “They’ve been around for some 1,430 million years,” he beams. “That’s 1,428 million years longer than you and me, and 1,200 million years longer than the dinosaurs. So think about that next time you order mushrooms on your artisanal pizza.” Another character effuses similarly about fossil fuels: “All that prehistoric marine life baking away over millions and millions of years to produce the precious elixir that takes us to the moon – as well as big box stores. From the sublime to the ridiculous, all by way of greenhouse gases.” Such endlessly quotable deep-time perspectives become less common in the book’s second half, seemingly because information about the distant past has become less readily available than in our time and people have been forced into hard lives that don’t permit the luxury of purely avocational intellectual pursuits.

Even so, our main character shows that stories at least have the ability to reach across human time spans. And their utility isn’t limited to the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next; they can also help heal collective psychological wounds. By the novella’s close, the play has come and gone, and things have come full circle in a satisfying way for Ardith and the rest of her community. The old stories have worked their magic and now new stories are being prepared for posterity.

Feature image by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

Tags: art as social change, climate change responses, cultural stories