June 30 – July 6, 2017 Vol. 19, No. 4

Summertime in the Belgrades

June 30 – July 6


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Head of Falls: A Novel by Earl H. Smith

by Martha F. Barkley

After the two "Dam" novels, The Dam Committee and More Dam Trouble, which brought much hilarity to the Belgrade Dam area residents, we now have an historic novel about Waterville Lebanese immigrants in the good old 1950s, prejudice and all. Remember Elvis Presley and the black and white TV your neighbor had before your family finally bought one?

Seems like yesterday. The popular music, dance steps, high school nervousness, first dates: all this in Waterville with Colby College in the mix. Earl Smith portrays his very sensitive story through the eyes of a teenage girl who has no trouble flaunting custom. She is quite the free spirit and the reader can not help but root for her.

Angela Jamal somehow learns to play classical piano without having an instrument to practice on everyday. The public school music teacher discriminates against the Canadian French (Canucks) and the Lebanese students. This occurs in selection of leads for the musical productions as well as the use of the pianos in the school.

Despite an abusive, drunk father, Angela often finds refuge next door at her best friend's home Margaux Mathieu (polio shriveled leg) and at her piano teacher's home Mr. M. (Lebanese name too long for most). She is nicknamed Angel by her caring piano teacher . . . it is a wonder that no one else endeared her this way before her teenage years? The two girls trek around Waterville to places like The Opera House, various churches, the wire bridge which is on the book cover, etc.

A murder mystery is within this teenage trauma story involving the drunken father who spends too much time and money at the local dive. The two girls confront the bartender and somehow force local police to investigate Angela's drunken father's death more thoroughly.

Since most of us have enjoyed many occasions at the Opera House, it is wonderful to read about the musical production held there by the Waterville High School students. Our Angela becomes prominent at the last minute, much to the surprise of everyone.

Her love of Beethoven and Mr. M's fine piano teaching is beautifully described along with the comfort of a warm escape from a terrifying father. The coziness of Mr. M's small apartment with upright piano and cuddly cat is quite the contrast to Angela's home where the curtains blow in the winter cold. Her brother escapes by signing up for the military and her mother copes by working and attending mass daily.

The cardboard keyboard certainly plays an important role in the story of learning music. Mr. M. explains her talent: she has an ear for music. She practices so much that her homework suffers. Angel loves music. When her courses are changed to boring subjects, Angela decides to buckle down and do her homework with friends helping her to catch up. Fortunately, her courses are switched back to college prep, even though her family can not afford the expense of college.

The repeated yearly flashbacks of news bulletins was helpful to bringing context to the Waterville scenes we were being so intimately immersed in. I must admit I had to Google the meteorite that hit a woman in Alabama. Remember that one? She was fine, only minor injury to her hip. Laugh out loud humor happened when "Ode to Joy" was silently thought about for her Father's funeral. La-Di-Das are mentioned often and the reader is clear about who they are!

This fine novel about Waterville in the 1950s makes me curious about Earl Smith's two histories: Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College and With the Help of Friends: A History of the Colby Art Museum. Off to the library I will go to check more books!