Fans of the recent Hunger Games trilogy will feel right at home with Michael Abraham’s novel “Providence, VA.” Both are coming of age sagas set in a dystopian environment. The hostile surroundings of the latter are induced by a solar electromagnetic pulse (referred to throughout the story simply as ‘The Pulse’) intense enough to take down the electric grid of the eastern United States for several months.
Sound like mere fantasy? Weak premise to hang a tale around? Abraham’s done his research. “There was a strong EMP in 1859 and a weaker one in 1921, just as the power grid was being developed,” explains Professor Pike McConnell, one of the novel’s central characters, who teaches electrical engineering at Virginia Tech.
“The industry has been building a false sense of security and had gotten complacent. Consumers have been stressing the grid with higher loads. It’s been good for profit but we’ve failed to make the safety measures needed to prevent the damage we’ve now seen.”
Google ‘electromagnetic pulse 1859 1921,’ and sure enough, the hard historical data spills forth to back up the very real possibility of the novel’s opening disaster.
“When I was working on my first book,” says Abraham, “I met a mountain woman who lived very remotely. She said to me, ‘If the world goes to hell in a handbasket, my neighbors are the people you want to know. They are ingenious, they live close to the land and care for each other. They’ll make it.’
“I thought about this for 3 years. I began to think about how to send the world to hell in a handbasket, quickly and blamelessly, thus a natural disaster. There are other books written about EMP from nuclear attacks, but I didn’t want to have all that geo-political stuff weighing in. I decided to have the story told from the view of a young, impressionable outsider, faced with a difficult situation.”
Samantha Reisinger is the ultimate outsider to Appalachia: a wealthy 17 year-old Jewish girl from the northern New Jersey suburbs who’s never been to the mountains before. She travels with a chaperone and her beloved grandfather’s heirloom Guarneri violin (he played with the New York Philharmonic) to the annual Old Fiddler’s Convention at Galax, VA. Sammy’s goal is to see if she can expand her formal classical playing with 5 days of intense immersion in bluegrass and old time music. During the festival her chaperone is suddenly called away by family crisis, and Sammy’s parents agree to instead let a member of her new musician friends’ circle drive her home.
She’s playing onstage one evening, accompanied by new friend Jamaal Winston on the banjo, when ‘every light in their universe went dark.’
Sammy, Jamaal, Pike, and their other friends assume they’re dealing with a mere power outage, and so no one panics initially. But cell phones are down, cars with electronic ignitions won’t start, and electronic watches are dead. Pike’s the first one to suspect something larger is in play, and in the middle of the night rousts his friends up out of their tents to flee what will soon break down into a nightmarish setting, as stranded festival goers start running out of food and water.
Their group, luckily, has access to an old converted school bus whose non-electronic ignition works just fine, and so they hightail it to the town of Fries, 12 miles away, dropping off most of the group members at their homes along the way, leaving only Sammy and Jamaal, the sole other person in the bus who’s from out of state. Professor Jamaal Winston teaches economics at Georgetown University, and like Sammy, has a deep family connection to music: his grandfather was the black Delta blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.
Fries is the home of Quint Thompson, school bus owner, local pharmacist and preacher at an evangelical church in nearby Providence. He and his wife Hattie graciously offer their home up for Sammy to stay in. Quint’s neighbor, widow Emily Ayres, agrees to house Jamaal for the duration of whatever it is they’re in for.
And so the hunkering down begins.
What does Michael Abraham’s Appalachia look like when the world turns upside down? Mercifully, the Blacksburg resident doesn’t cater to the old Hollywood stereotypes. Yes, there are white trash families way back in the holler living 10 to a trailer, and yes, there are a couple of bigoted rednecks in town who are good and ready to string Jamaal up by a rope soon as they get the chance.
And Abraham has a keen eye for the dark underbelly of propriety: Quint the preacher turns out to be having an affair with Annie Wilkins, the police chief, whose son Shane is the local Lothario. Sammy loses her virginity to Shane in about the same time period he’s busy also impregnating Sammy’s new ‘best friend’ Rhonda, whom he turns against her. In a riveting plot twist late in the novel, Sammy is challenged with the ultimate moral conundrum regarding Rhonda. Alone with a full term pregnant Rhonda who’s ready to deliver Shane’s child any moment, will Sammy help or walk away?
But overall Abraham wants us to appreciate the resilience of his townspeople, their ability to fend for themselves, be it by raising and canning their own food, pitching in to help rebuild an old-fashioned water turbine dam to generate new electricity, or gathering at the town hall regularly to play music and keep a sense of community alive. And that’s the spirit that Sammy, initially the outsider, pulls close to her as she gradually becomes accepted, then sought, then loved by the survivors in Providence.
The novel is set in the present. Abraham offers it up as a cautionary tale of what could/will happen if we as a society don’t incorporate more sustainable approaches, not just to our energy network, but also to our financial, health, education, and food networks as well. Using his two professors as surrogate mouthpieces, Abraham implores us repeatedly to realize how interconnected all these systems are, and how susceptible they are currently to unexpected disaster.
The Virginia town of Independence is not far from Providence, and it’s easy to wonder why Abraham didn’t choose to name his novel after that town, considering how quickly his townspeople are able to start to rebuild their society without any input from the paralyzed big cities.
But Abraham is a moralist; he wants his tale to teach a lesson.
Sammy answers the question of the book title best as she emerges from the novel’s tribulations: “I have concluded it is no coincidence that I was placed there. Providence means the care, control, or guardianship of a deity. It was my destiny to be there and to receive the graces of that community.”
“I’m not sure whether technically ‘Providence, VA’ has been the best of my four novels,” says Michael Abraham, “but unquestionably the characters were much closer to my heart than any others. It is my favorite story and if I ever wrote a sequel to any of my books, it would be this one.”