"The Siege of Salt Cove"
(reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 3, 2004)
"When the siege began—long before any blood was spilled and the vicious armored vehicles rolled up—I was the first to realize these were illustrious, important events. I took notes, I wrote down what people said and what they thought…no one else could have spoken to everyone as I did, could have recorded what it was like for a small, insignificant coastal place, no more noticeable than the nail on your last toe, to stand up to the greatest power on the face of the planet, and hold its attacker at bay."—Jessica Stoddard
When the State of Massachusetts Department of Public Works decides that the picturesque, wooden footbridge linking the village of Salt Cove to the mainland of Leicester is unsafe and will be summarily torn down, the three hundred full-time residents are outraged. When they see the proposal for the new bridge, a concrete monstrosity strong enough for fire trucks and wide enough for two-way vehicular traffic, they vote for all-out rebellion.
Stalwart, unbending Yankees with family histories rooted in the rocky soil of Salt Cove, they are not about to let outsiders tell them that they will benefit from this concrete assault on their aesthetic sensibilities. And the idea of two-way vehicular traffic is even less appealing. No way do they want easy access to the village so that real estate speculators can turn it into a cutesy "old-style New England" vacation destination and bed-and-breakfast-haven for tourists from Boston and New York. When the state refuses to back down and, in a show of power, closes the bridge, the residents revolt. With New England determination and some hard-headedness, they decide to take on the government and wage a mini-war in an attempt to break the state-imposed siege of Salt Cove.
Recording the events in Salt Cove is Jessica Stoddard, a 73-year-old spinster, who lives alone in the large home where she grew up, took care of her father, and helped with his law practice. Fiesty and independent, Jessica fears no one and tolerates no nonsense. Arriving early at the town meeting to arrange her papers and reports, for example, she is more than a little annoyed at "those who were always chattering in my face while I was trying to get organized, especially those who imagined these were my sole moments of identity because I sat onstage in the public eye…You pass seventy and they look you over…and think they are doing you a favor by offering any lame comment that comes into their heads. They don't realize you take an aerial view by then: with neither cruelty nor kindness, you see them as ants that time will eventually step on."
The brains behind the rebellion is a quiet man in his early forties named Toby Auberon, a relative newcomer to the village, regarded as a hippie, who has leased the now-automated lighthouse and, until now, has kept completely to himself. A summa cum laude graduate of Stanford and its law school, Toby is a former federal prosecutor from California who has hidden his past from the gossipy villagers. Secluded in the lighthouse, he works on his Machina, the world's most elaborate pinball game, modeled on the win-or-die games played by the early Mayans, a game that is "an allegory for death and life, sacrifice and renewal," that will "turn back the clock, [and] exchange the visual illusion of a computer game for the actual world of ball and machine." As Toby spends more and more time in the real world trying to save the very real Salt Cove Footbridge, his time working on the Machina, his allegory for death and life and sacrifice and renewal, is reduced. Eventually, the bridge itself becomes the source of very real death and life and sacrifice and renewal.
Author Weller brings Toby and an additional twenty or more characters to life by allowing them to tell their own versions of the events in Salt Cove and describe their contributions to them. Each of these voices is unique and easily recognizable, and many of them are hilarious. Billy Fagles is an earthy, often foul-mouthed, but clear-thinking local who has no illusions about government or those with pretensions, and he expresses his opinions in such no-uncertain terms that I cannot find a single sentence I can even quote here! His friend Roscoe, who has a cesspool pumping service and truck, which plays an important role in the blockading of the bridge from the State, is equally "frank."
Scott Mahren, who calls himself "Wily Scativo," is a jive-talking, millionaire inventor of a foot pedal for toilets, a man who "loves to see the gasp and astonishment clouding people's gaze when they realize they're in the presence of a titan." Molly Mellew is a jewelry designer, whose past as a porn star is not as secret as she thinks. Henry Wilkes, Jr., is a thirteen-year-old sci-fi addict with fantasies about Molly Mellew, and Leilia Milne, the wife of a surgeon, is a highly respected lady, bravely battling cancer, who is inspired to cut the tires of state trucks.
Most of all, however, this is the story of Jessica Stoddard and Toby Auberon as they come to know each other in the context of the fight to save the bridge. Jessica, we discover through her notes, is not a timid maiden lady--she is, instead, a very lusty 73-year-old who has always wanted to experience the true love of her life. She finds it in Toby, and their remarkable (and secret) love grows as the crisis in Salt Cove grows. The love story is sweet and sensitive, despite the more than thirty year age difference, and the reader will willingly suspend judgment about its plausibility because s/he wants it to be true.
Much of the Salt Cove story is told tongue in cheek, with a good deal of satire thrown in, but it is a loving satire by an author who respects his characters and what they stand for and sees them in the context of a wider world. As the government escalates the siege to include Humvees, National Guard tanks, underwater demolition experts, the FBI, and SWAT teams, Salt Cove counters with its tireless citizens, a crazy militia unit from Missouri, a missile found in a fishing net, and plastique explosives. And while it is not surprising that bloodshed does eventually occur, it is a jarring event when it does, a harsh blow just when the reader is loving the characters and smiling at their actions.
Quirky imagery combines with the singular voices of the characters to create vivid pictures of people and events. Jessica says the relationship of Salt Cove to Leicester is like being "under a ragged umbrella that couldn't keep the rain off." Her initial impression of the State DPW man who comes to talk about the bridge is that he is "no more of a threat than a basted turkey." Molly Mellew describes a local merchant as "a radically overweight Leicester white-bread selling overpriced kitsch mugs and porcelain figurines to people she goes to church with." Scativo comments that it's been "a sizable distance since I slashed tires professionally, but it's like riding a bicycle, you never forget, that's the beauty of having a useful skill, no matter how arcane." And the earthy Roscoe advises getting serious with the state: "You want to make them talk serious fast, you let them know you got a bomb under their chair and a missile pointed at their castanets."
Hilarious, mildly satirical, sometimes sweetly romantic, full of wacky and oddball New England characters, and realistic in its depiction of the State's insensitivity to historic preservation and locally important landmarks, Weller's novel is certain to amuse his readers—especially those from Annisquam and Gloucester, Massachusetts. Annisquam does have a picturesque, wooden pedestrian bridge which underwent repairs some years ago but retains its wooden character, and the map of Salt Cove could have been traced from the maps of Annisquam/Gloucester. Every landmark in the novel is real, from the stone causeway, to the village church, the wooden footbridge, and the lighthouse in Annisquam, to the Fishermen's Memorial, the Fitz Hugh Lane statue, Our Lady of Good Voyage, where a funeral is held, and the port of Gloucester. Those of us who live nearby and know the area have the special advantage of being able to imagine all these events really happening in real places, but anyone involved in conflicts between local and State and Federal governments will fully appreciate the absurdities Weller brings to life in The Siege of Salt Cove.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Days and Nights on the Grand Trunk Road: Calcutta to Khyber (1997)
- First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War (December 2006) (Written by George Weller, Edited by Anthony Weller)
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About the Author:
Anthony Weller has won awards for his poetry and journalism; his writing has appeared in GEO, Vogue, Gourmet, G.Q., Travel & Leisure, Pan, National Geographic, Condé-Nast Traveler and the Paris Review. He is also a much-recorded guitarist. He began playing professionally at the age of 18. He studied music at Yale, then moved to New York, where he was active in performing and recording in both jazz and classical genres. In New York, he trained as a composer and has written works for piano, orchestra, voice and various chamber ensembles, as well as for solo guitar. He left New York to live in Amsterdam and Paris for several years.
Married, he lives in Gloucester Massachusetts and Italy.