Eternal on the Water

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About The Book

Cobb, a devoted teacher and nature-lover, takes a sabbatical from his New England boys prep school seeking to experience what Henry David Thoreau and the transcendentalists did in the early nineteenth century. Kayaking to the last known spot where the American writer and philosopher camped four years before he died, he encounters the beautiful free-spirited Mary. Also a teacher, avid bird-watcher, and deft adventurist, Mary is flirtatious and beguiling, and the two soon become inseparable. Mary is like no one Cobb has ever met before, but he gets the feeling that she is harboring a secret. Eventually she shares her fears with Cobb—that she may be carrying the gene for a devastating, incurable illness that runs in her family. Finding strength in their commitment to one another, the two embark on a journey that is filled with joy, anguish, hope, and most importantly, unending love.

Set against the sweeping natural backdrops of Maine’s rugged backcountry, the exotic islands of Indonesia, scenic Yellowstone National Park, and rural New England, Tender River is a timeless and poignant love story that will captivate readers everywhere.

Excerpt

1

I FIRST SAW MARY ON THE HIGHWAY well before we reached the Allagash. I saw her near Millinocket, the old logging town on Maine Route 11. I noticed her truck first, a red Toyota, and I noticed the yellow kayak strapped on the bed. We both had New Hampshire plates. I also had a Toyota truck, green, and a yellow kayak strapped on top of a truck cap.

Toyota love.

She pulled into an Exxon station. I passed slowly and watched to see her get out. But she fumbled with something on the seat next to her and I couldn’t see her face.

Her hair was the color of cord wood. She wore a red bandanna that sometimes waved with the wind.

THE ALLAGASH WATERWAY RUNS ninety-two miles northward from Chamberlain Lake to the St. John River on the border of Canada. It is surrounded by public and private lands, thousands and thousands of acres of pine and tamarack and hardwoods. To get to the starting point on Chamberlain Lake, you must pass Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin. Mount Katahdin is the beginning or end—depending on the direction you hike—of the Appalachian Trail.

The indigenous people did not climb Mount Katahdin until late in the nineteenth century. The world, they said, had been built by “a man from the clouds,” and he lived at the summit in snow.

I stopped for gasoline at the last service station before entering the Allagash preserve. The station catered to rafters and kayakers who ran the Penobscot, a wild, dangerous river that churned white water in spectacular rapids through steep cataracts. Three blue buses—with enormous white rafts tied to the tops—idled in the parking lot. A bunch of kids loitered around the door to the service station, all of them wet and soggy. It was a warm day for September in Maine, although the cold held just a little way off, somehow up in the branches of the trees, waiting to fall. The kids went barefoot mostly. A few ate ice cream cones.

I filled my tank. I felt good and unscheduled, but also a tiny bit nervous. Ninety-two miles through a wilderness by kayak. As Dean Hallowen said when I proposed my plan for a sabbatical from my teaching post at St. Paul’s School, a secondary prep school outside of Concord, New Hampshire, “That sounds like an undertaking.”

And it did.

But he had approved the plan, even contributing funds for a trip to Concord and Walden Pond to research Thoreau’s activities there. Now I planned to follow Thoreau’s path into the Allagash, a trip he had undertaken in 1857. Thoreau went no farther north in Maine than Eagle Lake, a still-water camp I hoped to reach my second night. I did not know what I hoped to gain by standing on the same land as Thoreau, but it seemed necessary for the paper I hoped to write about his adventures in Maine. I also thought—and Dean Hallowen concurred—that it would be a useful footnote in any future class I gave on transcendentalism.

Leaning against the flank of my truck, though, the entire project seemed hopelessly academic. Why bother researching a writer who had been researched to death? Did the world really need another appraisal of Thoreau? It seemed hideously theoretical. The river, by contrast, had become more real with each passing mile. Ninety-two miles, solo. Three enormous lakes, two portages, one Class IV rapids, cool nights, warm days. Not easy. Any time you went solo in the wilderness you risked a simple injury or mishap developing into something much larger. Dump my kayak, wet my matches, turn turtle, and what I had drawn up as a seven- or eight-day trip would turn into something more frightening and real. I had promised myself to be brave but cautious, intrepid but level-headed. Prudent and sober. Smart.

“Hurry gradually” was my motto. It had become a little buzz phrase I used with everyone when I described the parameters of my proposed trip.

Ninety-two miles alone on a river! marveled various people—men, women, fellow faculty members, family, friends—when they asked what I intended to do on my sabbatical. I can’t imagine, they said.

Hurry gradually, I answered.

That’s what I was thinking about when Mary’s truck cruised by. I saw it more clearly now. Red. Beaten. A yellow kayak with duct-tape patches. Obviously one of us did more camping and kayaking than the other. And it wasn’t me.

I nodded a little with my chin. Then I ducked as though I had to adjust the gas nozzle, trying to see into her cab. She drove past without braking, and I gained only a quick glimpse of her hair again.

A bumper sticker on her tailgate caught my eye.

A HEN IS ONLY AN EGG’S WAY OF MAKING ANOTHER EGG.

SAMUEL BUTLER

I BOUGHT THREE LOTTERY tickets for luck, a Diet Coke, two bags of Fritos, and stuffed as many packs of paper matches in my pocket as the checkout girl—a dark, Gothy-looking girl with a large stud in her right eyebrow—allowed. When I finished, I nodded to her. She had no interest in me. She watched a pair of boys her age who sat in the doorway, flicked their hair repeatedly, and talked in quiet voices. Dreamy boys, I’m sure she thought.

“Heading down the Allagash,” I said in one of those lame moments where we feel compelled to explain ourselves.

Or maybe I simply wanted human contact.

“Hmmmm,” she said, her eyes on the boys.

I left before I could embarrass myself further. I checked the kayak straps to make sure nothing had jiggled loose along the dirt roads, then climbed into the cab.

As I started the engine, I wondered if this hadn’t been a mistake. I also wondered what it would cost, psychically, to back out. I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but uneasy, a little out of my element. I turned on the radio and found an oldies’ station. I wanted someone to go with me, but it was a strange time of year. Most of the people I knew—teachers, primarily—had already returned to school. If they weren’t already in school, they had to prepare classes, get a new academic year under way. I had stepped out of cadence by having a sabbatical. Everything in my training pointed me toward school, the bells, the new classes, the fresh notebooks, the whistling radiators, but instead I was heading down a river I didn’t know. I kayaked confidently on flat water, but going down a river, through rapids, setting up camp—it made me edgy to think about it. What I needed at that moment was a buddy, a companion, someone to kick a foot up on the dash and pump his fist that we were heading into the wilderness.

Instead I listened to Marvin Gaye sing, “Let’s Get It On.”

But that didn’t make me feel better.

A MOOSE BROUGHT ME out of it. Driving along, eating the orange curls of corn chips from the bag I held between my legs, a moose appeared from the right side of the road. A black, dark mass. At first I thought I had somehow seen a stump walking freely through the scatter woods at the roadside. Then the moose turned and angled as if looking down the road the way I had to travel. A male. Enormous palmate antlers. A string of grass and mud dangled from his left antler. His shoulder came well above the top of the Toyota.

I slowed.

He didn’t move. He didn’t respond to me at all. He stood with his nostrils streaming two tubes of white air into the first evening chill, and his body blended into the woods behind him. If I had looked away at that moment, perhaps I could have let my eyes lose him in the forest. It seemed fantastical that a creature carrying a TV antenna on its head could maneuver through the puckerbrush of Northern Maine. I turned down the radio and braked. Then I slipped the truck into neutral and climbed out.

The bull moose could not have posed more perfectly. I had a moment when I thought, Oh, come on. The whole thing seemed a bit too much: crisp air, black moose, yellow maples, bright white breath. I felt no fear, despite knowing the rut had begun. The moose had no interest in me. As if to prove it, a female suddenly broke out of the woods perhaps a quarter mile away and crossed the road. She did not stop or look back, but the male, becoming vivid, suddenly trotted down the road. He ran with the classically awkward moosey gait, his bottom shanks throwing out with each step. He disappeared into the woods approximately where the female had disappeared. I heard him for a second clatter through the slag piles of brush at the roadside, then nothing.

Okay, I said as I climbed back in the truck. I turned on the heat a little higher. I looked for the moose when I passed their point of disappearance, but the woods had covered them.

YOU REQUIRE A PERMIT to run the Allagash.

I pulled over at four thirty to a small government building with a sign that said: Permits Here.

Mary’s truck took up the best spot. I parked behind it and a little off to the side.

I checked myself in the mirror. Quick smile, quick hair brush, quick glance at my jeans. I climbed out. The office appeared closed. I also realized that the temperature had dropped way off. What had been a warm day had changed in the course of an hour. I made a mental note to remember how fast the temperature sank once the sun went behind the pines. Travel early, camp early. Everything I had read about the Allagash had stated that as a basic survival law. If you left late in the morning, you risked facing the wind as it inevitably rose throughout the day. If you didn’t find a place to camp sufficiently early, then you risked missing a convenient spot and having to set up a tent and campsite at night. Learn to pace yourself, the books said. Think ahead.

I would also need a fire going, I realized. Every night.

I climbed the stairs to the office and pushed open the door. I looked for Mary, but instead a large, raspy woman with a bright yellow shirt stepped out of a back room at my appearance. I understood that the woman lived in the quarters beyond the front desk. Her daily commute averaged around ten feet. She wore a name tag identifying her as Ranger Joan. She wore a baseball hat, army green. The patch on the forehead crest said State of Maine.

“What movie did you want to see?” Ranger Joan asked.

She paused for effect. Then she laughed—a large, smoky laugh. A pinochle laugh.

I supposed I looked as dazed as I felt.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s just my way. A little joke. People show up here a little high-strung. I loosen them up.”

“Good to know,” I said, trying to recover.

“’Course we’re not showing movies here,” she said. “We’re holding a square dance!”

She laughed again, but this time she pushed some papers toward me.

“Okay, you’ll be wanting a permit, I guess,” she said. “Standard stuff we ask. We like to know when you go in, when you come out. Be sure to sign the logbook at each end so we can track you. You going all the way?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess so.”

“Ninety-two miles,” she said. “Best time of year to do it. No bugs, no no-see-ums. Good crisp air and the water is still reasonably warm. You can still take a quick dip after a day of paddling. You picked the right time of year, I promise.”

“Thank you,” I said, as if I deserved congratulations.

“I suppose you know already that the moose are mating?” she asked. “We like people to know what’s ahead of them.”

“I’d read about it.”

“Just give them room, especially the males. They can get a little funny this time of year. Spring is worse with the mothers and babies. You don’t want a mother moose thinking you’re going to bother her little one.”

I looked up. Slowly she realized I couldn’t fill out the forms and have a conversation at the same time. She smiled. I smiled, too. Then she went up on her toes to see my truck. She nodded.

“From New Hampshire?” she said, happy to talk even if it did distract me.

“Yes.”

“Well, you might want to think about camping here for the night. Once you enter the waterway, you have to camp by boat. In other words, you’d have to start tonight, even if it’s dark.”

“I thought I’d camp by my truck,” I said. “Once I arrive at the Chamberlain Lake landing.”

“Can’t,” Ranger Joan said. “Ranger in there is a man named Coop and he is a bug about the rules. He’ll push you right into the water to get you going. Rules are rules to Coop.”

“But if I camp here?” I asked, trying to move my pen on the form at the same time.

“No problem. You get a fresh, early start tomorrow. That’d be my advice. Sun will be down shortly.”

I looked out the window. Under a small group of pines, I saw a woman setting up a tent. She had backed the Toyota into position so she could unload it without difficulty. She had slipped into a red-checked mackinaw; she wore a Mad Bomber hat, the kind with fake rabbit fur earpieces that buckle under your chin.

“I’ll stay,” I said. “Is there a charge?”

“Ten dollars,” Ranger Joan said.

I paid for the permit and for the ten dollar camping fee. Ranger Joan stamped a few things, tore a piece of perforated paper off a long form, then folded it all and handed it to me.

“You should keep this with you,” she said, nodding at the forms. “If a ranger along the way asks to see your permit, that’s what you give him. This time of year, though, you won’t find many people on the waterway. The rangers are out patrolling deer season. The Chungamunga girls are out there somewhere, but that’s the only group that came through this way in the last day or so.”

“Chungamunga girls?” I asked, fitting the paper into my rear pocket.

“Oldest girls’ camping school in America. They run it every year, sometimes twice a year. They do it for school credit. Just girls, no boys. You don’t want boys and girls in the woods together if you’re a supervisor.”

“I guess not.”

“They take their time,” Ranger Joan said, pulling the pad of permits back to her. “Learn crafts as they go. Read history, natural science, mythology books, a little of everything. We schedule a few talks with naturalists and the like. Some of the girls have never been out of their backyards before. They get a little homesick and a little crazy before they finish, but it’s a great experience for them. They say it’s good luck for a lifetime if you run into the Chungamunga girls on the Allagash.”

“Well, then, I hope I run into them,” I said.

“You’d be surprised who’s been a Chungamunga girl. Presidents’ daughters, captains of industry. And so forth.”

I couldn’t help wondering if anyone used the term “captains of industry” anymore, but I nodded in any case. Ranger Joan walked around the counter and pointed to a camping spot near where the woman had set up camp.

“You can camp right by her,” Ranger Joan said. “Just pull your truck beside her. Johnny cut up some scrap pine and you’re welcome to burn some for a fire. It’s going to get downright nippy tonight.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“She’s a pretty little thing,” Ranger Joan said, jutting her chin at the campsite. “Her name is Mary Fury. Everyone around here loves Mary Fury.”

© 2010 Joseph Monninger

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Eternal on the Water includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joseph Monninger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

When Jonathan Cobb takes a sabbatical from teaching to go out and experience nature as Thoreau did in the mid-nineteenth century, he does not expect to meet the love of his life, any more than Mary expects to meet him. But from their first camp side meeting, they know they are soul mates. Set against the sweeping natural backdrops of Maine’s rugged backcountry, the exotic islands of Indonesia, Yellowstone National Park, and rural New England, nature plays a key role in their romance. But their story is tragic as well as inspiring as their perfect love falls beneath the shadow of her impending fatal illness, and he must help her make an important and difficult decision.

 

Questions for Discussion

1. Cobb has taken a sabbatical from teaching to learn from nature. Specifically, he wants to kayak down the Allagash, along Thoreau’s path. How do you think Cobb’s trip into the unknown alludes to or is a metaphor for other aspects of his life?

2. Early in the book, before Cobb meets Mary, a moose blocks his way in the road. Then, a female moose crosses, and the male trots after her. How does this foreshadow his meeting Mary? What other appearances do moose make in the novel, and what do you think these appearances signify?

3. During their first meeting, Mary asks Cobb if he’s a bear. The mythology of bears turning into humans to steal dances and charm people is a recurring one throughout the novel. Mary’s mythological stories about crows pop up throughout the novel, too. Examine the use of mythology and folklore in the story and discuss their role in the novel.

4. Cobb’s fondness for Thoreau is illustrated in his love for nature and his desire to live life simply. Even when they are spellbound in their first romantic days together, Mary respects Cobb’s desire to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps and gives him some time to be alone on Pillsbury Island where Thoreau camped, and he agrees even as he wants to be with her. What does this say about his dedication to Thoreau’s way of life? What draws him to it so strongly? What does it say about Mary’s respect for others?

5. Cobb describes his motto as hurry gradually. What do you think he means? Do you think he and Mary managed to live by this motto? Why or why not?

6. We know from the very first pages of the novel that Mary has died on the river. What effect did knowing the ending have on your reading experience as you traveled back in time to read about Cobb and Mary’s budding relationship? Might you have felt differently had you not known what was coming? Why or why not?

7. The novel features many references to circles throughout. For example, Mary eats her sandwiches in circles, Cobb describes himself as a circular kisser, and birds circle around carcasses. Identify the ways in which circles appear in or influence the story and discuss their significance.

8. Francis is a secondary character who has an emotional impact on Cobb and Mary, just as they do on him. How did you feel about the way Cobb and Mary took Francis under their wings during his difficult times? How would you have reacted if Francis was a student or protégé of yours?

9. The Chungamunga Girls play an important part in Mary’s life. What do you think was their main function in the novel? How does their motto, we are Chungamunga girls, we are eternal on this water, have an added poignancy for Mary?

10. Freddy, Mary’s brother, says that “the real world is always somewhere else” (page 187). What do you think he means by this? Compare and contrast his love for sea turtles with Mary’s love of crows. How else are the siblings similar or different?

11. Why do you think the author decided to make reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “Annabelle Lee”? How is the love described in the poem similar to that of Cobb and Mary?

12. Mary does not want to know her test results because, if she tests positive, she does not want to live in fear of the disease and its inevitable conclusion. But Cobb encourages her to find out so she’ll know how to plan. How do you feel about this aspect of the story? What does it tell you about these characters? If you were in Mary’s position, would you want to know whether you had a terminal illness?

13. Cobb wants what is best for Mary, but he finds it painful to go along with her decision to end her life on her terms—in dignity, before the effects of her disease totally take over. How do you feel about her desire to end her own life doing something she loves? Did you find her decision believable given what you learn of her throughout the novel? Why or why not?

14. This novel delves into the full meaning of love. Was there a scene or a moment that seemed to sum it all up for you? Do you think love can be defined in a moment, or is it the compilation of many moments? Did you find the evolution of Cobb and Mary’s love realistic? Why or why not?

15. Why do you think the author chose the title, Eternal on the Water? Discuss the significance of the river to Mary’s story in particular.

 

Enhance Your Bookclub

1. Cobb likes to live life simply, like Thoreau. Later we learn that Mary does, too, and so does her brother, Freddy, and Cobb’s father. Make your own experience living the simple life by turning off and pledging not to use electronics for a weekend, go for a hike in the woods, or plan a camping visit to a state park. If you live near water, try a canoe or kayak ride. Get out into nature, and feel free to take along a good book.

2. This novel implies that you should live life to the fullest, every day. Or, as Mary’s mother says, say yes to the good things in life and grab them! What are some things you have been wanting to do, but have been putting off? Identify one or two things that would help you to live your life to the fullest and do them!

3. The Chungamunga girls play a large part in Mary’s life. What are some clubs or organizations you can think of that are similar? Girl Scouts? Nature clubs? Consider introducing a young adult novel, such as Joseph Monninger’s Hippie Chick, to a group of young girls. Encourage them to form their own book club and to discuss the books they read. You will have a lasting effect on the girls just as the Chungamunga girls did on Mary.

4. The idea of coincidences—that two people have to be in the right place at the right time in order to meet, and the odds are against it—plays an important role in this novel. Can you think of important events in your own life that seemed to come coincidentally? Think about the life-altering coincidences in your life, and all of the variables that had to be in place to make them happen, and share with your book club at your next meeting.

 

A Conversation with Joseph Monninger

1. This novel is infused with an appreciation for nature. Do you find it easy to use nature to tell a story? Do nature metaphors and settings come, well, naturally?

I hope so. I live in a beautiful part of the world—western New Hampshire along the Baker River—and my family and I spend a lot of time outdoors. A brook runs past our bedroom and our house opens onto a meadow. We have grown accustomed to seeing the seasons change and we mark time by the way light moves across the field and into our house. We ran sled dogs for many years and raised chickens. It would be nearly impossible at this point in my life to write a “city” novel. Nature is all mixed up in my day to day life. So, yes, nature metaphors come naturally, no pun intended.

 

2. Although Cobb and Mary are central, there are scenes that involve a dozen or more characters, and we feel as though we know all of them personally. Do you find it easy to make so many characters come alive with their own personalities and speech patterns, or is that a challenge?

Well, it’s always a challenge, of course. Someone once said plot is character. If you think about it, we like seeing characters in interesting situations. Simple plot is boring, although it serves as a motor for narrative. It provides us with and then, and then what happened, and then, and then, and then. If plot were enough, then the Freddy Krueger movies would be worth rewatching (or watching once!) but the series of startling events becomes silly because we don’t care about the characters. I try to make sure I know who my characters are before I let them get swept away by potential plots.

 

3. Cobb and Mary both seem to want to live life simply, following in the footsteps of Thoreau. Is that quality a reflection of you as an author? What effect did you hope this thematic choice would have on readers?

I actually believe in simplicity as a way of life. My wife and I are considering moving into a yurt! I know it sounds a little crazy, but the world, as Wordsworth warned, can be too much with us. How much time do we spend doing things we care nothing about? Living simply, wanting less, asking for little. . . . It is a way to free ourselves, I think.

 

4. Bears often pop up in the scenes of this book even when they’re not really there. Is this bit of folklore (that bears can turn into people to steal dances and charm humans) something invented by you, or is it something you discovered?

It’s partially invented and partially a long standing bit of folklore. Bears are extremely human, even down to their footprints. But I am also a fly fisherman, so I have fished beside brown bears in Alaska and was once charged by a black bear. I love bears. In our town in New Hampshire, there is a story about a girl who was supposedly sheltered by a bear for a day or two. Many cultures have similar stories. Plus, bears have a comical side. How can you fail to like a creature with a wide bottom who loves more and more honey?

 

5. In your writing, you display an intimate knowledge of kayaking, camping, and other outdoor activities and sights—all part of what makes Cobb and Mary’s experiences so believable. Do you try to go out and experience the things you know you’ll be writing about? Or do experiences you’ve already had in your life help feed your writing?

Well, as I mentioned, I spend a good deal of time outside. I kayaked the Allagash River by myself some years ago. It’s a spectacular experience. It runs ninety miles northward through a pristine part of Maine. My wife and I have kayaked the St. Croix River in Maine and, of course, we live on a river. When our son was ten we bought him his first kayak. I’ve been a New Hampshire fishing guide and I’ve travelled around quite a bit in the west fishing and hiking. And I love Yellowstone. When I travelled to Indonesia and visited those islands, I was interested in seeing green turtles. It was only afterward that I invented Freddy and a turtle nursery. I am aware of the need to keep trying new things. As a writer, you never know how the piece will fit into the puzzle, but you do know you need to keep pawing through the pieces.

 

6. It’s obvious through this book, and others you have written, that nature influences your writing. When you set out to write a book, do you go out into nature and visit the places you will write about? How does nature inspire you?

That’s a tough question to answer, but maybe it will help to know I don’t take pictures. I’ve never liked the moment of seeing something beautiful—a sunset, a moose, an elephant—and then raising a camera and trying to capture it for some future moment. That’s always struck me as strange. Experience the moment now, I say. If the moment is important enough, you’ll have an internal album of pictures from which to draw. That’s what I hope inspires my work.

 

7. Although nature is prominent in the novel, you also make steady reference to new technologies, such as MySpace, Facebook, cell phones, even a scene of these two “oldfashioned” nature-lovers watching a classic film on a laptop in bed. Was it important for you to show how nature and technology can coexist?

A good life these days seems to require a blend. I like movies and I like computers and I also like getting away from them. I don’t own a cell phone, for instance. I’m probably the last human alive not to own one. I do it deliberately. I have phones . . . I just don’t want to be on call at all times. Sometimes it’s inconvenient not to have one, but I often hear friends grouse about having to answer their phones all the time. Long ago I visited Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s a great museum, by the way. But he insisted that the new technology in the house—a telephone—be tucked away in a wooden booth. Just because technology is available does not mean we need to employ it.

 

8. You have written literary fiction, young adult novels, memoir, and nonfiction. Do you have a favorite genre? How do you choose which kind of story you will write next, or does the genre choice depend on the message or story you have to share?

Oh, I like stories. I like narrative. I can feel when a story starts churning around in me. I hear most of what I write unlike some people who see their stories. But as a reader I read all sorts of things. So, as a writer, I like to try different things. I love young adult books because the readers—kids—are so honest in their reactions. Also, kids read with a wonderful concentration and joy. But the writing exercise is pretty much the same in all books I attempt.

 

9. As a seasoned and successful author, can you briefly describe your writing process? Are you more of a “write every day” or a “write when inspiration hits” sort of author?

Long ago I read a biography of Jack London written by Irving Stone. It was called Sailor on Horseback. In the book, London claimed to write a thousand words a day. I adopted that as my practice. My son had a play fort out in the backyard and when he turned fourteen or so he lost interest in it. I’ve taken it over. It has a standing desk, a chair, and a woodstove. . . . And nothing else. It’s very quiet and it has a beautiful view. I write in the early morning and afternoon. I try to write every day. “Nulla dies sine linea.” (Not a day without a line.)

 

10. Can you share some of the authors, writers, or role models who have helped to shape your writing?

I love many, many writers, but I don’t dare mention them by name for fear of leaving someone out. I always have a book on hand. I love the feeling, when you close a book, that you have read something truthful and genuine. Hate what’s false; demand what’s true. I love the writers who don’t cheat. And that cheating can take place even in the most so-called serious novels. But I also have to say that I am a teacher, and teaching keeps me honest. Students have a ready-made lie detector. I’m always amazed that they sense falseness in bad novels and detect worthiness in genuine novels. Deep down, of course, it all comes back to the Hardy Boys. If I can give someone the pleasure I felt reading the Hardy boys, that’s probably accomplishment enough.

 

11. Eternal on the Water delves deep into the meaning of love, illness, and death. Was it difficult to write about the nature of Mary’s illness and death, yet still keep it a light, tender love story? What inspired you to write this novel?

Mary’s character made this novel a pleasure to write. I like her. I like Cobb, too, but I really like Mary. I happen to have a lifelong friend who is a biologist at the University of Connecticut. Biologists are different. I’ve been to parties with him and other biologists where they cook up roadkill. They simply see the world slightly different, perhaps more on a cellular level. So Mary is trapped, sort of, by her knowledge of science and her love for Cobb. But as they say, we are all mortally ill. Mary simply knows she has a shorter time on earth, which provides some of the pressure to make the story move forward. Every story about death is personal.

 

12. The reader knows from the opening pages what has happened to Mary and how it happened—including Cobb’s part in it. Why did you decide to start with the end?

The why of something is often more interesting than the how. Or at least it usually is. If I use a headline and say, “a local gamekeeper was swallowed by his own snake today in such and such a place,” you are going to read to find how why and how. The story itself is already over. You know the ending. So in this novel I wanted the reader to wonder what in the world happened and be curious. It’s up to other people to decide if it worked.

 

13. When Mary mentions late in the novel that seeing a moose is a good omen, it brings back the previous scenes—Cobb seeing a male moose chase after a female prior to his meeting Mary, and later, seeing the dead elk. Was that the sort of thing that you had planned, or was it something you went back to fold in during revisions?

That just fell in! In fact, I didn’t even think of it until I was asked this question. Thanks for pointing it out. The first moose that Cobb sees shakes him out of his nervousness about running the river. I always like the Robert Frost poem about the way a bird shook snow off a barn door “saved some part of a day he rued.” I know what he means, I think. Nature is restorative.

 

14. This novel spans the globe, with sections set in Maine, Indonesia, Yellowstone, and New Hampshire. Have you spent time in all of these places? What kind of research did you have to do in order to use these settings?

Yes, I have been to those places. I have been to Maine and Yellowstone many times. My son lived for a student year abroad in Indonesia and my wife and I visited him there. It’s a wonderful country. We may go back there for an extended stay next time. I’ve always been a traveler, though. I hitchhiked across country three times while I was in college and went right out of college into the Peace Corps. I spent time in West Africa and led student groups all over the world. So, yes, I love to travel. Research? It’s just living.

About The Author

Photograph by Jon Gilbert Fox

Joseph Monninger has published several award-winning YA novels and three books of nonfiction, including the memoir Home Waters, and has been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He lives and teaches in New Hampshire, where he also runs a dog sled team.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (February 2010)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439168332

Raves and Reviews

Praise for The World as We Know It:

"Ask yourself when the last time it was that you read a book so beautiful and agonizing that it made you cry for joy and sorrow. The World As We Know It does that." --Bookreporter

"Monninger has homed in on the beauty and cruelty of the natural world in this gripping and moving story of loss and understanding. Readers ... will revel in Monninger’s warm and graceful descriptions of rural New Hampshire and his adept understanding of the landscape of human relationships." --Booklist

"Joe Monninger beautifully captures the essence of childhood adventure and the sweet innocence of falling in love for the first time. Fans of John Irving, you have a new author to love." --Lisa Genova, New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice and Left Neglected

"Henry David Thoreau meets Nicholas Sparks in this poignant love story rooted in the forests of Maine. On sabbatical, prep school teacher Jonathan Cobb's only goal is to retrace Thoreau's historic 92-mile journey along the Allagash Waterway by kayak, little realizing that, like Thoreau, he will soon "front only the essential facts of life" after meeting Mary Fury on his first night camping. An experienced, exuberant outdoorswoman, Mary invites Cobb to join her for a lecture at the Chungamunga camp for girls suffering with medical illnesses. There, Cobb is impressed by the camaraderie of the group, drawn in by their emphasis on creativity, mythology and survival skills. His growing feelings for Mary are put to the test when she reveals that she's suffering from Huntington's disease, and details the condition's debilitating path. Though the plot sometimes drags through Monninger's numerous digressions, his keen eye for nature, subtle incorporation of indigenous myths and use of symbolism make for a memorable story of love and courage."
--PW

"Love conquers all, the saying goes, but it can’t win out over the disease that befalls Mary Fury, the seemingly unflappable heroine at the center of Monninger’s poignant, if a bit overlong, novel. Fury has the gene for Huntington’s, a cruel affliction that attacks the body slowly, reducing a once healthy person to a mass of twitching muscles and nerves. Jonathan Cobb, a University of New Hampshire professor on sabbatical, learns the grim reality of Mary’s situation shortly after the two meet (and instantly fall in love) on the Allagash River. This is the land of Thoreau’s Walden Pond, and Cobb had come there to experience firsthand the pleasures of a simple life illustrated by its celebrated author. When Mary begins showing signs of Huntington’s, the two must cope with the inevitable, which includes honoring Mary’s wishes to live out her days as she sees fit. Monninger (Baby, 2007) is a gifted writer, and readers able to overlook a few maudlin moments will relish this eloquently rendered tale."
--Booklist

“A touching love story immersed in the beautiful simplicity of nature and life lived in the present moment."
--Lisa Genova, NYTimes bestselling author of Still Alice

“Joe Monninger is a brilliant writer. No one understands nature the way he does, under his skin and straight to his bones. He writes about new love with such tension, emotion, and the deep passion and understanding that develops between two people. The novel will keep you up all night. Eternal on the Water will be a classic."
--Luanne Rice, NYTimes bestselling author of The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners

"Eternal on the Water is more than a heartfelt love story. It is a beautiful and searching exploration of the meaning of commitment and the majesty of nature, told in the strong, clear voice of a true believer. In these pages, there is much to learn of life, death, love and healing. It's a book to savor and then to share."
--Susan Wiggs, NYT bestselling author of Just Breathe and Lakeshore Christmas

"Eternal on the Water is a book that reminds you that joy and sorrow are inextricably entwined, that one means less without the other. What would you do if you were Mary, or Cobb? This luminescent story will never leave you. I adored it."
--Dorothea Benton Frank

"Joseph Monninger's Eternal on the Water is a compelling and poignant love story. His two characters, both strong and independent, meet by chance in the Maine wilderness and find in each other the depth of connection they have been searching for and the confrontation with mortality they have been dreading all their lives. Their celebration of life and their emotional parting will touch you deeply and move you to tears."
--Selden Edwards, author of The Little Book

"Genuinely enchanting! If you ever went to summer camp, this book is especially for you!"
--Kaya McLaren, author of On the Divinity of Second Chances

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