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Once Upon Wisconsin Paperback – December 23, 2009
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Novelist McKay's strong suit in this work is his portrayal of Bill Ennis, a whistle blower fired for his honesty as a CPA negotiating the politics of palace intrigue rife in the federal bureaucracy. Compounding his callous dismissal from his 35-year career, Bill's wife and son are taken from him one evening by a drunken driver. Bereft now of family and career, Bill takes to the road to flee those memories and find new meaning. He searches for a dimly remembered resort with stone cabins, a lake, and the setting of a family photograph taken nearly 50 years ago when Bill could still ride on the shoulders of a loving and devoted father.
One likes Bill Ennis. Early on. While this reviewer strongly prefers First Person narratives, author Dennis McKay clearly has command of the Third Person rendering of his lead character. Resort owner Trudy Pas'cal and her son Hanson are well-drawn also and represent intriguing substitutes for the family Bill lost. Although his marriage to college sweetheart Rebecca became mechanical, Bill's relationship with and yearning for his lost son Tim serves as the emotional undertow for the work. Could Hanson become a replacement? And Trudy, will she consider Bill husband material or is their attraction mostly physical?
Along with the well-worn photograph, Once Upon Wisconsin is accented by several nice touches. For one, the caption above Zastrow's general store and grocery, "No Hurry, Stay Awhile." Bill does just that and finds his loyalty to the locals growing. I found the bedtime exchange between Bill and young Tim especially engaging. The philosophy imparted by Bill's father too provides a hook to the premise of the work which appears to be: How should one live his life after disappointment with it thus far? Something for baby boomers to ponder perhaps. In Once Upon Wisconsin, Bill Ennis is negotiating some hard curves and downward plunges. His reflections and possible choices in the context of a blank page resonate. At his point in life, he must live, it seems, the script as he writes it.
I would advise readers to dismiss the printer/proofing errors found in the work. Don't let such distract you from its compelling characters and well-executed plotline. The pace is even and appropriate, building toward the crescendo in the final going. Chapter 24 is especially well-done and exactly as most of us would want or expect from what's gone on earlier. Note Bill's imaginary projection of Hanson's action at the very end: touching and evocative. All in all, a highly personal, pleasing, and satisfying exploration of life's ever-unfolding opportunities.
All the characters in this work are fascinating and a joy to get to know, but McKay has given the Wisconsin lake as much personality as any of them. He writes passages such as this, "Bill looked past Trudy, the defiant choppy waves and stiff breeze that fought him into shore gone, nothing left but a whisper of a breeze and a few small ripples lapping the lake surface." These are the words of a man who loves what he is writing about and leads his readers to do the same. (Steve Lindahl, author of "Motherless Soul")
Exellent writing, and very engaging story telling. I look forward to the author's next book.