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A Dangerous Age

By: Ellen Gilchrist
Reviewed by: Anita Garner
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008
$23.95, Hardcover

A Dangerous Age is Ellen Gilchrist’s twenty-second book of prose, so we who have followed her career for the last thirty years recognize her distinctive voice and finely crafted sentences. The time of the novel spans from the bombing of the World Trade Center to the eve of Hurricane Katrina, indeed a dangerous age. Yet this book is a brave step: a novel that explores a political hot-button issue, released in the heat of an election year.

There seem to be few in our society who do not have strong feelings one way or another regarding the U. S. involvement in the wars in the Middle East. Gilchrist’s novel does not choose sides: it merely explores the lives of the young members of the Hand clan, an affluent Southern family who finds itself woven intricately into the fabric of military involvement. A Dangerous Age draws clear, brief, perfect character vignettes, adhering to Hemingway’s theory that the best writing about war omits flowery, rhetorical phrases and paints only clear pictures. At one point near the end of the novel appears simply a list of the names of the day’s dead. Chapters may begin with brief quotations from the Associated Press, a summary of the war to date in fifty words or less. The effect is to lend dignity to the work.

Yet Gilchrist can really tell a story. Written mostly in dialogue, there is a perfection in the selection of scenes and details that makes this small novel feel much larger. We are instantly deep inside the characters’ lives, even seeing them write editorials and letters about the most important issues that face our society today. If there is one main character in this ensemble, it is Olivia de Havilland Hand, the editor of the Tulsa newspaper, whose father is the pater familias of the powerful Hand family of North Carolina but whose mother died at Olivia’s birth and left her to grow up with her Cherokee grandparents in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Olivia, whose life is driven by her career, takes a wild right turn when she is re-united with her first love, Bobby Tree. She becomes pregnant right before Bobby Tree’s National Guard unit is called into active service.

This is a beautiful book (blood red end pages, rich paper) and a beautifully written book. Oct 2008

Anita Garner writes and teaches creative writing in Florence, Alabama.

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