I met John J. Kelley at the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in Salem, Massachusetts. When he spoke of his debut The Fallen Snow, he called it a quiet novel. Quiet is an accurate description of how the story unfolds, but the impact of Joshua Hunter’s journey is huge. He is a character you will carry in your heart for the rest of your life.
“Specifics beget Specifics,” said writing coach Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, at the WU Un-Conference. The clearer a writer is about the past, which shaped the hero’s life, the more precise the writer can be about the hero’s goal(s) and the obstacles that get in his way. The Fallen Snow is an excellent example of how specifics establish character, clarify relationships and provide the context for the world our hero must navigate.
The first steps were the hardest. The cold didn’t help, though it was more than stiffness. More like his leg muscles had to relearn the motion, as though they’d forgotten their purpose. Maybe that was why he’d felt the compulsion from the time he’d awoken at the field hospital. He had to keep pushing lest he find himself trapped, or paralyzed. Or left for dead.
This passage is our introduction to Joshua Hunter, a WWI infantry sniper sent home after receiving an award for valor. These few lines tell us nothing of his past, but they clue us in on all we need to know about his character. Even in the face of great fear he is determined to move forward. We also sense Joshua’s fears run deeper than his physical injuries, and although the coming days will not be easy, he will not be beaten. He has something to live for, even if, like his legs, he is unable to articulate it at this time. We, the readers, haven’t even turned the first page, but we know we will because no one can step away from a character with such courage.
As Joshua reconnects with family and friends in his hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we become steeped in what it means to live in Appalachia in 1918. Kelley places us there without effort by allowing us to look through his characters finely focused lenses.
Some women took snuff in private or sipped from a flask hidden on the back step, like Mrs. McCullough across the way. Elisabeth Hunter dug at her worries while gazing down the ridge towards the town.
The Fallen Snow is all about relationships during a very particular period of time in this country. Kelley depicts the expectations and parameters that exist between friends, spouses, siblings and lovers with great accuracy to reinforce the world we have come to know. But the resonance these relationships have for us lies in his ability to expose the inner conflict of each character with a light hand, like when Elisabeth Hunter ponders her sick husband.
He could scowl all he wanted. Her husband carried an angry boy inside, acting up whenever he was frustrated. She could handle it. She had for years. It was the silence he’d leave behind that scared her.
Silence is a strong silk thread that leads us from one inner conflict to another in this beautiful debut. Kelley’s respect for silence allows him to magnify the unrest and overwhelming fear that surrounds Joshua’s life as he struggles to come to terms with who he is, without beating us over the head with proprieties.
Watching him was mesmerizing. Aiden was handsome…masculine.
Joshua tore his gaze away. He fidgeted, as if caught. No one was paying attention, the men nearby listless from the motion or busy in their conversations. Tommy remained fast asleep.
He turned his focus to the dirty floor, burying the feelings. It was a practice he’d perfected…automatic, instinctive. In a minute he’d convince himself it hadn’t happened, like always.
These seeds of attraction slip delicately into the fabric of the novel and show us a very different world than the society of 1918 that Joshua returns to, and might have maneuvered The Fallen Snow into a novel about gay rights, if it weren’t for Kelley’s deft handling of the material. Kelley touches on the pain of rejection based on incomprehension and in so doing, slices our hearts to bits. In that moment we understand that although The Fallen Snow is a quiet novel, it is also big, for it shows us the agony of what it means to live against the truth within your soul.
Step into the powerful stillness of The Fallen Snow.