News of the Air
By Jill Stukenberg
Black Lawrence Press, Sept. 2022, 350 pp., ebook: $9.95, paperback: $22.95.
There are layers to Jill Stukenberg’s debut novel News of the Air. Superficially, it’s an entertaining yarn that melds a coming-of-age adventure with a page-turning mystery. Yet it’s also an intimate, wonderfully gothic portrait of a remote northern wilderness and the equally remote inner lives of its human inhabitants. On another level still, it’s an uncommonly astute rumination on how small changes over time—whether in the ecology of the planet, the economy of a nation or the depths of the human soul—can cascade into tipping points. In short, Stukenberg’s is an auspicious first novel.
Set amid the majestic pines and ubiquitous lakes of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, the novel takes place in a near future marked by continued environmental and societal decline. Big cities are growing increasingly unlivable due to escalating violence and disruptions to water and electricity supplies. The countryside, while not without its own problems, is increasingly seen as a haven from the crises of the cities. We’re given scant clues as to the exact year or even decade—it doesn’t matter. As John Michael Greer, author and noted scholar of civilizational decline, has long reminded us, the fall of a complex society is a slow process in which decades can blur together. Only in disaster films is it overnight.
Our main characters are Bud and Allie Krane and their 18-year-old daughter Cassie. Bud and Allie own a summer resort called Eagle’s Nest. Originally from Chicago, they left when the mayhem of city life became too much for them, deciding to reinvent themselves as the new proprietors of their favorite summer getaway. Their daughter, who was born shortly after the move, has known only country life.
Stukenberg masterfully brings the Northwoods to life. Her descriptions are filled with sensory details familiar to anyone who has lived out in the woods, from the “long winding drive through the trees” to the pop of car tires turning onto a gravel road to the “dry crackle” of a woodstove in winter. Brilliant descriptions of picturesque scenery also abound, such as a lake “glittering in the near distance with the inviting sheen of a Leinenkugel’s commercial.”
But the novel is far too nuanced to portray country living as a utopia. For all its seclusion, Eagle’s Nest has still been hit by rising heat, flooding, and plummeting bee and frog populations. Just as in our time, no place remains untouched by human activity. Moreover, the Kranes’ livelihood remains as dependent as ever on the economic good fortune of faraway cities, since they are where the tourists come from. With the overall health of the industrial economy in decline, the Kranes are struggling more and more to eke out a living.
Bud and Allie have drifted apart, due in large part to their clashing worldviews. He is the optimist, believing that the modern industrial world still holds plenty of promise and that it’s time for them to move on from their foray into country living. After all, Chicago has hardly collapsed since they left it; life there is going on much as it always has, even if people find themselves masking up and having to carry documents more often than before. Allie is less sanguine and still insists they’ll come out ahead if they stick it out in the woods.
Cassie is a sharp, capable young woman, but one who has thus far lived a sheltered, lonely life. She can survive off the land and take apart and rebuild engines in her sleep. She’s a natural at computer coding. To quote her mother, she “[takes] to mechanical things, to systems.” She’s equally gifted at figuring out people. Yet she’s been homeschooled her whole life and has never flown, seen the ocean or been to a big city. She longs to get out and see the world, and the arc that sees her finally getting a chance to do just that is among the novel’s most satisfying.
The bulk of the story takes place in and around Eagle’s Nest one Labor Day weekend. The inciting incident is the arrival of two mysterious young children in a canoe, followed shortly by that of an older woman whom the Kranes suppose to be the children’s grandmother. She asks if the three of them can rent a cabin for a week, and though the Kranes usually close for the year after Labor Day weekend, they make an exception this time. The woman pays with a big wad of cash.
Speculation runs rife about the origins and purposes of the newcomers, with plenty of wild possibilities suggesting themselves. The Kranes find themselves increasingly drawn into this other family’s drama, and they come to legitimately fear they might be getting themselves into trouble in the process. To say much more about this storyline would be to spoil surprises, so I won’t, except to say that Stukenberg manages to wring plenty of intrigue, pathos, insight and satisfying character growth from it.
The novel has numerous other story threads and characters of interest, and develops them well. In doing so, it takes on a range of themes of vital importance to today’s world, from greenwashing, to smartphone addiction, to the need to shake anachronistic habits of thought, to the way in which today’s media landscape cultivates radically divergent perceptions of reality.
The gothic tone is beautifully sustained. There’s the deteriorating state of the resort cabins, which the Kranes struggle to maintain. There’s the morbid fascination of images like caskets protruding from weathering hillsides and children standing in the viewing line for a deceased schoolmate. There’s Cassie’s isolation from her peers. There’s the theme of toxic buildup, whether in the form of moral malaise or lethal chemicals accumulating in living tissues.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this novel is its willingness to buck our society’s blind faith in technological progress and look to the tried-and-true past for solutions to the crises brought on by progress. Nowhere is this symbolized more poignantly than in Allie’s fascination with a mysterious antique she finds in one of the cabins: a wooden-handled tool with short stubby spikes. She eventually realizes it’s a hatchet for breaking up chunks of ice in an icehouse. It dawns on her that there’s a bathroom that might make a fine icehouse. She likes the idea of an extra freezer that doesn’t require energy from the grid. We see in her the makings of what the aforementioned Greer would call a “retrovator”—the sadly underrated counterpoint to the tired old trope of the innovator.