The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák (Scribner, $26, 272 pages)
ny resident of Central Pennsylvania who lived through the flood of June 1972 can’t help but possess indelible memories of its devastation. That cataclysm lies at the heart of Andrew Krivák’s quietly moving second novel, The Signal Flame. Set in a small town in Pennsylvania’s gorgeous Endless Mountains, the novel follows a trio of characters in the aftermath of unspeakable loss as they try to rebuild their shattered lives.
The Signal Flame’s main action unfolds between Easter and Christmas 1972, in the fictional community of Dardan, located in a deep mountain valley near Wilkes-Barre. It’s home to Bo Konar and his mother Hannah, who live on a farm outside town. As the novel opens, they’re mourning the death of the family patriarch, Hannah’s father Jozef Vinich, a Slovak immigrant and the protagonist of Krivak’s National Book Award-nominated novel, The Sojourn. His stern, but loving, spirit hovers over the story, as when Bo imagines the house he’s bequeathed in his grandfather’s will as “an ongoing conversation with the old man, one in which Bo spoke to him if he had a problem, told him what he planned and promised that he would bring some kind of order to the place.”
But Jozef’s loss isn’t the only one that haunts the Konar family. Only a few months earlier, they learn that Bo’s younger brother, Sam, on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, has been reported missing in action. Hannah’s persistent inquiries to Army officialdom yield inconclusive information that only heightens her distress. Sam’s absence ironically echoes the experience of his father, Bexhet, who’d initially been reported as missing near the end of World War II, but who, in fact, had abandoned his unit and spent three years in a military prison after conviction as a deserter.
The novel’s turning point arrives with Tropical Storm Agnes. In economical prose, Krivák evokes that abnormally rainy spring of 1972, when “the ground was sodden and gave like a sponge wherever it was not covered with pavement or concrete, until those surfaces, too, began to buckle and crack,” and vividly describes the chaotic, terrifying night when the Susquehanna River overflowed its banks. And at the height of the flood there’s an accident that thrusts Ruth Younger, who’s pregnant with Sam’s child, into the lives of Bo and Hannah.
The Konars and Youngers have a complex, tangled relationship that long predates these events. Narrated through his grandfather’s spare journal entries, Bo, who now owns the lumber mill purchased by his grandfather, learns how Jozef came to acquire 2,000 acres of mountain land from Ruth’s grandfather in a series of sales, when the latter’s imprudent business management and personal failings brought on financial distress. More shockingly, Ruth’s father, Paul was responsible for Bexhet’s death, accidentally shooting him while hunting out of season more than two decades earlier. These fraught connections have bred a resentment that’s simmered for decades without ever breaking into outright conflict.
Most of the story revolves around the slow reconciliation that brings the families, through the damaged survivors--Hannah, Bo and Ruth--together. On the surface, their lives--displaying an admirable stoicism and centered on family, faith and hard work--appear uncomplicated, but Krivák, who grew up in Pennsylvania and spent eight years as a Catholic seminarian, has an instinctive respect for the personal qualities these people embody and a gift for compassionately exposing the depths of emotion that move them. He steers away from confrontations, instead trusting understated dialogue and a realistic depiction of how his characters take tentative steps toward each other in a search for peace and happiness, summed up in the admonition of the gentle priest, Father Rovnávaha, to Hannah, of her “chance to forget what misfortune has shaped the past, and to forgive one another. And yourselves. Once and for all.”
Krivak is also a writer who’s a pleasure to read for the pure elegance of his prose. His characters possess a deep affection for the land in which their lives are rooted, and it’s evident that’s a love he shares. Whether he’s describing how “a silver horizon met silver grass bent down with frost and spread out flat before them” or the way “trees stripped bare this late into fall stood like sentries in the mottled silver and greenish-black armor of their bark,” he writes with an eloquence that’s especially effective in describing the beauty of the natural world.
Save for one scene of high drama, The Signal Flame is a quiet gem that’s no less appealing for that restraint. There’s deep wisdom and even inspiration in Andrew Krivak’s depiction of three people inching their way forward from darkness to light as they rise above sorrow, instead of being crippled forever by it. It’s a hard road to travel, but one well worth taking with them.