Summary and book reviews of The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham

The Green Age of Asher Witherow

by M. Allen Cunningham

The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham X
The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2004, 288 pages
    Oct 2005, 288 pages

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Book Summary

A rich, coming of age tale set during the boom and bust years of an immigrant coal mining town in 19th-century California.

In this mesmerizing first novel by a gifted young writer, the drama of California's rich immigrant history and the freshness and wonder of childhood combine with darker elements of legend, magic and mystery. Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler calls it "a startling accomplishment . . . an enchanting novel by a lushly talented young writer." Tom Franklin, author of Hell at the Breech, says, "Cunningham is a writer we'll be hearing a lot more from." And Laurel Johnson of the Midwest Book Review calls it "a book to be savored . . . It has my highest recommendation."

Born while the Civil War is raging further east, young Asher Witherow seems marked for an extraordinary future. Anything but typical, he captures the attention of the eerily watchful apprentice minister and schoolteacher, Josiah Lyte, and of young Thomas Motion, a strange boy who can see into the deepest darkness.

When Thomas mysteriously vanishes, only Asher knows the truth of what has happened to him, and he must decide whether to keep his knowledge secret or reveal what he believes to be his own unforgivable mistake. It is an agonizing moral decision that will forever affect the lives of those closest to him and that will ultimately have a profound impact on all of Nortonville.

In breathtaking language that contrasts the striking landscape of California's Diablo Valley with the harsh details of life in an 1870s coal-mining boom town, M. Allen Cunningham takes us to an extraordinary time and place. It is a time when the brutal hardships of daily life are leavened by a sense of miraculous change just around the corner. It is a place of sensual, almost supernatural beauty, peopled with remarkable characters—like the highly unconventional Lyte, the "pagan" midwife Sarah Norton and Asher's beloved friend and closest confidante, the otherworldly Anna Flood.

Impeccably imagined, sensitive and real in its portrayal of a young boy confronting unanswerable questions with grace and strength, The Green Age of Asher Witherow is a remarkable book that convincingly shatters the equation of childhood and innocence.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
—Dylan Thomas

The supply seems to be inexhaustible. From the figures in my possession I have reasons to believe that over 2,250,000 tons of coal have been shipped to the market from the Diablo mines; and considerably more than half of that immense amount was shipped from the Black Diamond mines at Nortonville. Where is the mine in the State that can show a better record in regard to the past, or as bright a prospect for the future?
—Letter from Nortonville, Contra Costa Gazette, June 28, 1880

On a boggy day in 1806 a detachment of Spanish soldiers apprehended a band of Bay Miwok Indians in a marsh at the foot of a solitary California mountain. Commanded to redeliver the natives to the stern grace of the mission they'd fled, the Spaniards detained them...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Setting is so central to The Green Age of Asher Witherow that it almost becomes a character. Why is the natural landscape of the Diablo Valley so important, especially to the younger characters in the novel?

  2. Several myths, legends and systems of belief are mentioned in the novel. There is the traditional Protestant Christianity of Reverend Parry and the Nortonville residents; there is Josiah Lyte's own unique version of Christianity; there is the Hinduism that influences him during his childhood in India; there are the Native American legends of Indian tribes that first named the mountain and the Celtic myths and stories of Asher's Welsh ancestors. Do these "underpinnings" make the events of the story clearer or ...
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BookBrowse Review


This is one of those books where the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts that I fear to give you details from the plot, so all I can do is encourage you to read the excerpt for yourself and decide if this might be a good choice for you.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review (285 words).

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Media Reviews

San Jose Mercury News
Dark and foreboding, vivid in character, grounded in the geography of Northern California, this is an impressive and satisfying debut novel.

The Rocky Mountain News
An amazing first novel.

Laurel Johnson, Midwest Book Review
The early buzz on this debut novel serves up terms like poetic intensity; strikingly beautiful prose style; unerring instinct for storytelling; a startling accomplishment; and lushly talented. I will state emphatically that Mr. Cunningham's first novel is all that and much more. This is a literary novel in the finest sense of the word, magnetic and seductive from first word to last. ...This is a book to be savored, written by a gifted wordsmith. It has my highest recommendation.

The Salt Lake Tribune
... too compelling to put down.

ForeWord Magazine
... a remarkable first novel, a feat reminiscent of William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, likewise published in the author's twenty-sixth year. Not only are the stories of both novels carefully designed, but every sentence in each one is crafted with care.

Kirkus Reviews
Life and death among Welsh immigrant coalminers in 19th-century California. In an awkward weave, first-novelist Cunningham, a two-time Pushcart nominee for his short fiction, incorporates an early coming-of-age story with the scapegoating of an unorthodox seminarian. Such events (details of which have been removed by BookBrowse to avoid plot spoilers) are all shoehorned into the final third of a poorly paced novel that strives mightily to find the right language for the elemental Lawrentian urges at work, though too often the result is bombast. Disjointed material and unmatured style make for some rough sledding.

[An] accomplished historical novel. Its unusual structure and richly descriptive, evocative language display a mastery that is surprising in a novelistic debut. ...Memorable characters people the Nortonville, California, community, contributing texture and weight to the story. Most impressively, Cunningham depicts the rigors of life in a frontier mining town—especially the physical hardships—and the fragility of humans living in harsh conditions. The darkness of events and the elegance in structure and language will make this book satisfying to readers who enjoyed such books as Robert Morgan's Gap Creek (1999) and Annie Dillard's The Living (1992).

Publishers Weekly
Gritty...Cunningham does a superb job of capturing the grim rhythm of life in the mines...[his] naturalistic prose and the strong characterization of young Asher Witherow make this a worthwhile debut from a noteworthy new author.

Library Journal
With heartfelt characters and stunning descriptions, Cunningham presents a historical glimpse of squalor in the mines that will haunt readers. Highly recommended.

Author Blurb Steve Yarbrough, author
The Green Age of Asher Witherow is one of the finest debut novels I've ever read. Cunningham writes with poetic intensity, but this is also a book with enormous narrative drive, memorable characters and relentless drama. And while the author is an artist rather than a scholar, he serves up a wealth of fascinating information about the history of the Golden State. For a twenty-six-year-old novelist to produce this book ought to be impossible, but you hold the shocking evidence in your hands.

Author Blurb Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain
Rarely does a writer combine a strikingly beautiful prose style with an unerring instinct for storytelling. But this is indeed M. Allen Cunningham's startling accomplishment—in his literary debut, no less. The Green Age of Asher Witherow is an enchanting novel by a lushly talented young writer.

Author Blurb Tom Franklin, author of Hell at the Breach
he writing in The Green Age of Asher Witherow is beautiful, the details enviable, the landscapes amazing, the characters well-drawn. It's like this guy is 200 years old, he gets it so right. Cunningham is a writer we'll be hearing a lot more from.

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Between 1830 and 2000 more than 15,000 people were killed in USA mines. I assume similar historic figures could be found for any coal mining country.  For example, in Britain over 90,000 men, women and children lost their lives or were injured in mines between 1850 and 1914 (for a comprehensive resource of UK mining information see  Today, in industrialized countries, coal mining deaths and accidents have been much reduced because machines have taken over from the men and boys who used to work the coal face; deaths do still occur; for example the 2001 explosion in Brookwood, Alabama that killed 13; and there are health issues related to mining coal.  However, this ...

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