This Fire Tower sits at the top of a mountain trail in the Adirondacks. It’s no longer in use, except for hikers seeking exceptional views from up high–or for goal-oriented adventurers aiming to complete the “Fire Tower Challenge.” The challenge originated back in 2001, the brain child of a chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club: a hiker has to climb at least 23 towers to qualify for the full-color patch. (Officially these Fire Towers are off limits to climbers during the pandemic, in order to promote social distancing.)
Reading up on the history of these Fire Towers fills me with nostalgia for simpler times. It feels good to read about a big problem that was solved with common sense. Up here in the mountains, fires were a big problem at the turn of the last century, sparked by the clear-cutting of forest trees and train engines criss-crossing the region. Almost one million acres of Adirondack forest were destroyed by two big fires in 1903 and 1908, and the following year the NY legislature tackled the problem with money and an idea: Forest Rangers and Company to the rescue! The first Fire Towers were built in 1909. Paid Fire Spotters manned the observation platforms at the top of the towers, each equipped with a circular map of the Adirondacks, a pointer tool to identify where the smoke was coming from, and a telephone to sound the alarm. Eventually over 100 Fire Towers were built, the majority in the Adirondacks, and many in the Catskills. My aunt, who settled in a small town up here as a young bride, remembers a Fire Spotter who kissed his wife goodbye every Monday morning, hiked up a nearby mountain to the Fire Tower, and settled in until Friday evening when he returned home. He was about 65 at the time and had been doing it for years.
By the 1970s, the Towers were on the wane. Spotting fires from aircraft was easier and more cost effective. The last of the Towers officially closed in 1990, but before the state could tear them all down, a group of local citizens intervened. They liked their Fire Towers. They liked to picnic there; they liked to climb them. Today 34 remain.
Up here in the Adirondacks I’m early to rise and early to bed, pleasantly exhausted from a day filled with so much fresh air and outdoor activity. Sometimes too sleepy to read, I discover the joys of The New Yorker fiction podcasts: a well-known author reads a favorite short story by another author and then discusses it with the magazine’s fiction editor. So far I’ve listened to four ‘bedtime stories’ and enjoyed them all, especially “Corrie,” written by Alice Munro and read by Margaret Atwood. Ms. Atwood’s voice was already familiar to me. Last fall I heard her speak in Dallas when she came to talk about her latest novel, The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m already nostalgic about last fall–last fall, for goodness sake!–if only because it was pre-covid. The podcast was pre-covid as well, recorded in August 2019.
“Corrie” opens in the mid-1950s, a time many Americans feel nostalgia for, and although the story is set in Alice Munro’s native Canada, small towns are like many small towns everywhere. There’s a social hierarchy. Most jobs come from one or two sources, like a mine or a factory. In the case of this story, there’s only one big employer in town, a men’s boot and work shoe factory owned by Mr. Carleton, a widower with one daughter. The story begins:
“It isn’t a good thing to have the money concentrated all in the one family the way you do in a place like this,” said Mr. Carleton. “I mean for a girl like my daughter Corrie here, for example, I mean like her, it isn’t good. Nobody on the same level.” Corrie was right across the table, looking their guest in the eye. She seemed to think this was funny.
Howard Ritchie doesn’t seem to think this is funny. Although only a few years older, his first impression of 26-year-old Corrie is that she’s a “spoiled rich miss. Unmannerly.” Mr. Carleton has hired the young city architect to restore the crumbling tower of the local Anglican church, not that Carleton is an Anglican. He’s a Methodist to the core. But he’s worried that the Irish Protestants that make up the Anglican church won’t do the job properly. They’re too poor; he’s the only one in town with any money. If he thought Howard might be a match for his daughter, he quickly finds out that the architect is “already equipped with a wife and young family.”
Nevertheless, Corrie and Howard embark on a long-term affair. Not right away, but after she returns from a trip to Egypt, having sent him a few silly postcards along the way. Now, though, her father has suffered a stroke and dies shortly thereafter. Corrie, for all her spunk, isn’t much good around the big house. She can’t cook or type or keep the fires going, but Howard is capable and helpful when he comes to visit. The fact that Corrie’s also lame in one leg–from the polio she got as a child–seems to make her more attractive to Howard, as ‘wounded maidens’ sometimes are.
There’s never talk of Howard leaving his wife, but soon there’s a complication: a young woman who used to do some housekeeping for Corrie wants money for not telling Howard’s wife about the affair. She wants it paid twice a year in cash to a P.O. Box; it’s not a large sum of money, for someone like Corrie, and she decides she should be the one to pay it. The affair continues happily as before, although changes come to the town. The factory is sold; the company that bought it closes it down. Corrie finds new ways to keep herself busy. But then there’s a twist. We should have seen it coming, but we don’t. (At least this reader didn’t.) It’s just a wonderful piece of writing and plotting. It’s the kind of story that keeps the reader (or the listener) thinking about the characters long afterwards.
Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood are both Canadians, and they know each other fairly well, having met shortly after their first books were published. Ms. Monro, now 89, announced she was retiring from writing in 2013, the same year she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was little known in the U.S. until The New Yorker started publishing her short stories in 1977, something I learned in the discussion afterwards. “Corrie” was a more recent story, published ten years ago when she was 79 (way to go, Alice!) When fiction editor Deborah Treisman asks Ms. Atwood if she thinks they were working in similar zones, Atwood says absolutely not, Alice was a Depression baby, born in 1931, and Margaret was a War baby, born in 1939. Only eight years apart, but a different world and mindset. It makes me think of all the writers who died before the current pandemic, and how all the writers still writing will be changed by having lived in the time of covid.