In her newly released second novel, The River is Everywhere, Lowell writer-editor-author Emilie-Noelle Provost takes readers on a roller-coaster coming of age ride that is immersed in the Franco-American culture of the northeast. Ernest Benoit, the 16-year old protagonist, is shattered by the accidental drowning death of his best friend while they both vacationed on Cape Cod. Despite being a hard-working, high-achieving honors student at a local Catholic high school in a Lowell-like community, Ernie cannot process the tragedy. This ignites dormant doubts about his own life and he rebels against his family, his religion, and his education. Like so many similarly-situated young people, both in literature and in real life, Ernie sets out to find himself in New York City. Only he never gets there.
When another tragedy derails his journey to NYC, Ernie finds himself stranded in a non-descript corner of the Berkshires. This is not the Berkshires of elite summer theater or first-class art museums. It is instead the underdeveloped and impoverished small cities and rural villages of postindustrial western Massachusetts. Here, the novel’s cast of characters grows with artfully-drawn heroes, villains and innocents entering at a rapid pace.
Although I’ve read all of his books, I am by no means a Jack Kerouac fanatic. However, I hold in highest esteem his Lowell novels, especially Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy and Visions of Gerard, not because those are his greatest works, but because of the precision with which he captured the look, sound, and feel of Lowell. In The River is Everywhere, Provost – who subtly pays homage to Kerouac – does much the same thing for Lowell and the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and New Brunswick and Montreal in Canada, all filtered through the lens of Franco-American culture.
But this marvelous writing about place serves as a stellar backdrop for the action of the book which takes on some of the most pressing issues of our time including the rebelliousness of adolescence, discovering one’s sexuality, child abuse, abortion, poverty, inequality, and the inequities of the legal system.
The book concludes with Ernie reassessing his life. It’s not tied up in a neat bow with everyone living happily ever after. The resolution is messy, if it can even be called a resolution, but in that way it reflects real life and not the fantasy world proclaimed in too much of our popular culture. Fittingly for such an accomplished author, Provost communicates the therapeutic value of writing, the kind you do with a pen on a piece of paper.
This coming Wednesday night, March 22, 2023, at 6:30 p.m., Emilie-Noelle Provost will do a book-launch reading at the Parker Memorial Library in Dracut. Books will be available for sale at the event. If you can’t make it in person, The River is Everywhere is available for purchase online.