Powerful tale of Adirondack bootlegging
Christopher Shaw’s “The Power Line” is a complex novel set mostly in the Adirondacks during and soon after the Prohibition years. Lonnie Monroe and Francois Germaine work in the woods for Paul Smith, bringing electricity to his hotel. They are also bootleggers, transporting liquor from Canada to upstate New York.
In part one of “Power Line,” Monroe and Germaine come alive through the work of another fictional character, Abel St. Martin. This is Shaw’s frame for the tale, the story within the story: St. Martin sat with Monroe in the Trap Dyke tavern in Lake Aurora in 1983, interviewing and tape-recording the old man’s story. It’s a heck of a story, preserved in St. Martin’s transcripts that are discovered later by the narrator/editor. It has notorious gangsters like Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond, includes a thrilling trip to Montreal, chilling descriptions of moving contraband through the frozen Adirondacks, and insights into the tuberculosis cure business of Saranac Lake.
St. Martin’s interview with Monroe is more than half of “The Power Line.” Part two comes from another narrative discovery in an old camp at Eagle Point — the “lost journal, dating from the late twenties until her death in 1936, of the political theorist and social critic Rosalyn Orloff …”
Orloff’s diary entries describe her relationship with Germaine, whom she meets at an abandoned lumber camp near her estate. It is April 1929, and Orloff has snowshoed to the camp. “A man stepped out from around the corner of the building, with a rifle in one hand and two trout dangling from a stick in the other. I recognized him from the villages, and from the TB Society Christmas benefit.”
She also recognizes Germaine’s drinking problem. “When he tried to hand it [a coffee cup] back, his hand shook so badly he had to hold it with the other. So much splashed out he had to refill it.” So begins her efforts to sober Germaine, hiring him to manage her Eagle Point estate. The aristocratic lady is attracted to Germaine, and there is unfulfilled sexual tension present, apparent in how Orloff notes another woman’s interest in Germaine.
Shaw brought gangsters — Diamond and Schultz — into part one. In part two, famous intellectuals — Carl Jung, William James and Rockwell Kent, for example — are part of Rosalyn Orloff’s world.
Orloff is a keen observer of herself and those near her. Her May 1929 entry: Germaine “moved into the annex. Legal? Unclear, though morally legitimate, and not to be learned of by Vivian. One surprises oneself so seldom.” She also offers insights into the local effects of the Depression. In July 1930 she writes, “The B&M men laid off from the mills in Tupper and Fine gather near the railheads in Faust and Conifer. … In Saranac, more women supporting families with sanitarium jobs.” Her journal is the most compelling portion of “Power Line.”
“The Power Line” focuses on Adirondack players during Prohibition and the Great Depression. Lonnie Monroe recounts his exploits for Abel St. Martin. Rosalyn Orloff opens her eyes and her heart in her diary. Francois Germaine — bootlegger, hunter, rustic carpenter, fiddler — is the center of both accounts.
I admit to being sometimes confused while reading “Power Line” — is this character and/or event real or fictional? How much is “novel,” how much is actual history? But I kept turning the pages, happily, especially moved by Rosalyn Orloff’s intelligence and kindness.