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Christopher Shaw
The Power Line

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Market)

The Power Line transports the reader from the villages of Lake Aurora and Saranac Lake in the years following World War I, when Prohibition and tuberculosis kept them hopping, to Montreal and a thrilling escape by canoe across the St. Lawrence River in the dead of winter. It follows the adventures of Fran Germaine, rustic builder and old-time fiddle player, and his friend Lonnie Monroe, the source for the tapes and transcriptions made in the eighties about their days working as together as bootleggers for Legs Diamond. The tapes, made by the guide and independent scholar Abel St. Martin, were discovered only after his disappearance on an Amazonian river expedition years later. They partly explain what happened in the rumored shootout in 1929 at Donnelly's Corners, north of the village of Saranac Lake. But The Power Line moves on to the journals of the noted political theorist, author, and reputed lover of Carl Jung, Rosalyn Orloff, who also studied with William James and went to Radcliffe with Gertrude Stein. They shed light not only on a little known period of Germaine's biography, but also on a little known stream of influence in the Adirondack story and its centrality to American philosophy, psychology, art, and environmentalism. Fast paced but allusive and wide ranging, The Power Line connects lives and periods often overlooked in the history of northern New York and the Canadian borderlands, tracing a path from a disputed and murky past to a living and recognizable present.
Book Review: 'The Power Line,' Christopher Shaw

Released in late summer 2020, Christopher Shaw's The Power Line escaped our attention until recently, but the book is an uncommon accomplishment that merits a belated review. Shaw, who lives in Bristol and has retired after 20 years of teaching creative writing at Middlebury College, preceded that career with a long stint in northern New York. His time on the other side of Lake Champlain, both as a guide and as editor of Adirondack Life, richly informs The Power Line.

The book declares itself to be a novel, and Shaw goes to some pains to support its status as fiction. He even prefaces his tale with a cautionary "Note to the Reader" that states:

The question of what constitutes truth in the printed word is of understandable concern to the careful reader, doubly so in these truth challenged times. It goes without saying that you should bring to your reading of this regional chronicle the same healthy skepticism you would bring to reading scripture, Shakespeare, or the New York Times.

Why does this matter? Because Shaw then proceeds utterly to confound his readers' grasp of the truthful and the apocryphal. The squirmy category of "historical fiction" will not do here, even though the author anchors his prose with real towns, rivers, lakes and peaks and sprinkles in real figures, from naturalist-turned-president Teddy Roosevelt to gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond.

The epistolary novel uses subtle but strategic point-of-view shifts to make the past feel present, just as a film narrator's voice-over might introduce a memory, only to fade out as viewers are immersed in the remembered experience.

Christopher Shaw captures the Adirondacks and beyond in new novel

“I wanted to write fiction that snapped and moved along. I wanted to write it based in the experience of the Adirondacks and the ways of the Adirondacks but about an Adirondacks that was connected outward, rather than just inward,” Shaw said. 

“The Power Line” follows the adventures of Fran Germaine, an engineer and fiddle player, and his friend Lonnie Monroe. They work for Paul Smith’s Electric Company and as bootleggers for Legs Diamond, a gangster in the Prohibition era. 

The first part of the novel is action-oriented, with a classic western, or perhaps gangster tone, though throughout there are serious reflections on the Adirondack landscape, and how it has changed through the decades with additional infrastructure and transforming technology. 

It’s a packed novel and one of several that Shaw has planned in an Adirondack series, including a “Power Line” prequel, “The Crazy Wisdom,” a book about his longtime friendship with fellow Schenectady native Jon Cody, and “Adirondack Mind,” a collection of his essays about the Adirondacks which spans more than 15 years. 

Shaw puts place at the heart of his new novel

“The Power Line” is one of three books Shaw has written about the Adirondacks (a fourth is in progress). With the help of designer Pamela Fogg and editor Jennifer Kiewit, it’s the first one to get published. He has also written a number of shorter pieces about the region, which have appeared in literary journals, magazines and newspapers.

Altogether, his work, which is suffused with great intelligence but not burdened by it, has both arisen from and in turn influenced the place he loves so well, and he has helped to create the very thing he went into those woods to find 50 years ago.

Within Living Memory

The Power Line is "a joy to read," and "compresses social history (great camps, hotels, sports and guides, the erotically charged cure cottages and sanitariums); it features a gallery of historical characters: (Theodore Roosevelt, Paul Smith, Edward Livingston Trudeau, Legs Diamond, Bob Marshall, Art Pratt, Noah John Rondeau, Rockwell Kent, Jacques Suzanne); it footnotes economic history (the development of hydroelectric power, purportedly for flood control, but in reality, to supply local industries with cheap power, to the detriment of the Forest Preserve); and limns the political history of the Adirondack Park (from the origins of an environmental ethic to the sometimes violent battles over land use regulation.)"  Chris Shaw shows "the rare gifts of a writer in peak form."