"Axton Landing," Tony Holtzman's new Adirondack novel, is a lively glimpse of 19th century logging in the North Country. With a heavy dose of real history, Holtzman pushes through the tension of massive log drives, the terror of typhoid and greedy foremen in the time before the Adirondack Park existed. If you pick up the book as a galloping adventure story, you won't be disappointed. But it's impossible to read "Axton Landing" without learning from its physical and ideological landscape.
Geographically, "Axton Landing" centers at the modern place of the same name, called "Axe Town" for the 'jacks who worked there. Then, as now, Axton Landing was at the center of Adirondack water routes. In the mid-19th century, the Raquette and Saranac Rivers were driving commercial conduits of the North Country. Holtzman recognizes the significance of these pathways, introducing many of the most important characters, including the storied Indian guide Mitchell Sabattis - by boat. He teaches us the mechanics of logging and log drives, the social strain of isolation in the Adirondack winter and the hardships of transportation in that period.
As a piece of historical fiction, "Axton Landing" couldn't be set in a more engaging epoch. The nation's attention was on an impending Civil War, but lumbermen in northern New York went about their grueling work all the same. Holtzman brings this forgotten milieu to life with a driving plot and deft integration of social issues of the time. Never has a backwoods lumberman so seriously contemplated "The Communist Manifesto."
The book is peppered with interesting historical figures. We meet Sabattis, the escaped slave and ordained preacher Jermain Longuen and the founding family of Corey's. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the characters "borrowed" from history seem better rounded than most of the fictional men and women in the novel, who are occasionally predictable. Unfortunately, the main love interest of the novel falls into this category. Yet Cyrus Carter, the book's hardworking protagonist, is complex and integral throughout. Though the narration isn't limited to Cyrus' point of view, it is his vantage that we come to genuinely care about.
From Carter's first introduction as a tough, illiterate 'jack to his final decision to run for public office, we come to respect his intentions and insight. His transformation is touching yet surprisingly subtle; his circumstances may have changed, but his thoughtfulness and integrity support the whole story. Carter's measured viewpoints humanize the progressive ideologies of "Axton Landing;" the stirrings of forest conservation, the foment of socialism and a final assertion of women's rights all play prominently.
But even with Carter to guide us through Axton Landing's intellectual pathways, the narrative's uniform pacing sometimes suggest history, not fiction. Important characters are struck down by cholera, typhus, axes, log jams, and rifles, and for the most part the pace rolls along without pause. The brutality of the logging camps turned my stomach, but I felt like a spectator. When a central character is killed breaking a log-jam, it feels too scripted. Of course, he shouldn't have been hopping around on those logs or jumping out of the boat. Everybody knows that's how lumberjacks die.
Yet the novel is an engaging first link in Holtzman's Adirondack Trilogy. "Axton Landing" was published in June by Cloudsplitter Press, and I look forward to the next installment.
Christian Woodard is a reporter for the Addison Independent in Vermont. He also runs PR and marketing for the Adirondack Center for Writing.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirodnack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.