Allegra Goodman explains her motivation for writing Kaaterskill Falls
I was born in Brooklyn New York, but only lived there two weeks. I spent my
childhood in Hawaii, from the time I was two until I went away to college. At
Harvard where I was in the class of '89, I majored in English and philosophy,
and wrote and saw the publication of the stories that comprise my first book,
Total Immersion. After graduation, I got married and spent a year in England
writing fiction while my husband David studied "maths" at Cambridge University.
Then we went to Stanford, where he got a Ph.D. in Computer Science, and I got a
Ph.D. in English. While at Stanford I wrote most of the stories that make up my
second book, The Family Markowitz. Many were published in The New
Yorker. But throughout this time I was working on one long term project, a
novel: Kaaterskill Falls.
I wrote Kaaterskill Falls for three reasons: The first was that I wanted
to capture a particular time and place that had made an indelible impression on
me and my family. My mother's family had a house in a small town in upstate New
York, and every summer they would leave Brooklyn to enjoy the mountains, the
lakes, the trees, the shade, and their dear friends and neighbors, who also came
up every year and formed a small tightly knit yet also diverse Jewish community.
As a child I used to go with my parents and sister to that house with its
beautiful garden. The neighborhood, and the whole landscape were exotic to
me--the cool mornings and the deciduous trees, the mountains, waterfalls and
clear lakes, the Yankee houses with their porches and steep slate roofs, even
the petunias and snap dragons in the flower beds were all so different from the
tropical island I knew. Long after our family stopped going to the mountains in
the summers, my mother would dream about the town and her house. She missed that
place, and I got the idea that I would write a book that would somehow capture
and recreate that place of her childhood for her. I was twenty-one.
The second motivation for writing this novel was that I was interested in
delving into a rich, and for many, foreign strand of American Jewish life. I
wanted to write about an Orthodox community grounded in tradition, but to do so
in a way that was neither anthropological, nor sentimental. I wanted to write
about men and women who were believers and traditionalists and even separatists
in America, but to write about them as individuals, and as human, with all their
idiosyncrasies, their ambitions, their fears, their flaws and their hopes. I
loved that challenge.
Finally, my third reason for writing this novel was artistic. I wanted to write
a novel about how individuals define themselves within the confines of family
and community; about what they might choose to leave behind them, and why they
might choose to stay. I wanted to write a novel about difficult moral choices
and their consequences as people shape themselves and their worlds. The
structured separatist community I invented, the Kirshners, and the traditional
neighbors in Kaaterskill provided a stage with which to play out my drama. I was
interested in writing about principle, and belief, the hold of religion and
history, and so I wrote about people who were principled and were believers, and
were held by religion, and--some of them--drawn to art. I wanted to create a
rich detailed canvas that would draw the reader in, taking the reader to a new
place, allowing the reader to see the world through my characters' eyes. I was
inspired by the great novels of the nineteenth century, in which a whole world
comes to life as we read. The novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony
Trollope. And yet my novel is an unmistakably twentieth-century book. My
narrator is unobtrusive, my narrative is written in the present tense, and most
of all, my characters, are very much men and women of their time, grappling with
holding onto tradition in a modern world, struggling, even in their orthodoxy to
maintain their religious lives in the aftermath of the Holocaust. My characters'
summers in the Catskills are both serene and poignant.
The selection I have chosen for you focuses on Elizabeth, the character who is
perhaps the heart of this book. She is a devout mother of five daughters who
goes about both chores and prayers with a calm grace envied by her neighbor Nina
Melish. Only under the surface is Elizabeth restless. She is mature in her role
as mother and wife, but she is also young, and her imagination pulls at her
constantly wishing for a project of her own, a means of self expression. When
she visits Olana with Nina and for the first time sees Thomas Cole's painting of
Kaaterskill Falls, Elizabeth has a vision that changes her life...
Copyright © 1998 Allegra Goodman.First published in Bold Type 1998. Reproduced by
permission of Random House publishing.