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Book review: "The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale" by Mary Sanders Shartle

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Mary Sanders Shartle begins her novel with a scene of an Adirondack hermit shooting a rifle at low flying military planes that are disturbing the quiet of a cold February day.

All of us have been startled by the roar of military fly-overs, but Lily Martindale does more than complain to the hotline. After a bullet from her rifle hits a plane she is under investigation by Homeland Security and her secluded life as a caretaker at a camp in the northern Adirondacks comes undone.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

Shartle moves back and forth in time in her novel, with the core of the book centered around an Adirondack family camp called “The Hill”, a place with, Shartle writes, “ a big stone, spruce and cedar heart.” While the camp’s heart can’t be wounded, Lily’s can. When she was a young girl her parents died in a plane crash and for 40 years she’s struggled to overcome that tragedy.

A large cast of characters surrounds Lily’s past and present and Shartle brings them to focus with descriptive snapshots. The rich and influential Winslow family owns The Hill and they seem a bit like the Kennedy’s—beautiful and doomed. The Adirondack characters who care for the Winslow’s have, Shartle writes, “the stoic kindness, no-nonsense firmness and patience that life in the North Country produced like thick, tannic bark on the hemlock.”

I cringed a little at that line, though this is part of the joy and the discomfort of reading a novel set in a place I know well.  I could easily imagine the shady porches and wide fireplaces at the summer camp but my Adirondack friends don’t all live “simple” lives of happy servitude. Shartle knows how to use detail to build her fictional world and it’s too bad she occasionally slips into generalizations and implausible coincidences.

Fortunately, the strength of the writing in The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale made it a pleasure to read. The opening chapter contains a rich scene with Lily outside on a bitterly cold winter day. Shartle writes, “she is thick today with the fat of clothes like blubber on a whale.” In another chapter Clara, the local minister, comes up to The Hill to check on Lily after she has arrived from New York City. Shartle writes, “Lily Martindale was drab and handsomely plain. The only mark of a refined life on her was her streaked hair, in a cut that wouldn’t have come from anywhere around there, and which, if Lily had a mind, she’d have to go to Placid to get anything close to it. As Clara was soon to learn, Lily had no such mind, and the streaks and cut would grow long and unkempt before too long.”

Each chapter of the novel begins with a verse from an Episcopalian hymnal and the main building at The Hill is called Doxology Lodge. I worried when I started reading  that the book would be heavy-handedly religious but religion stays as a background motif, not a proselytizing presence. Lily is a woman who needs not only the healing power of the woods but the support and faith of friends who never let her disappear from their lives.

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