The Spirit of the Place takes place in the early 1980s over the course of a little more than a year, mainly in the fictional Hudson River Valley town of Columbia, located a few hours north of Manhattan. It follows the course of Orville Rose, who is called back to his hometown after the death of his mother. Having successfully escaped the dead-end town as a young adult, Orville is pressed to decide if he is willing to move back for “one year and thirteen” days in order to fulfill the terms of his mother’s will. Along the way Orville revisits many of the “broken” places and people in Columbia (not the least of which is himself), meets up with characters from his past, and confronts ghosts, literally.
The major characters in the novel are Orville Rose, a recently divorced 40-something doctor who has fled this small town life for Europe; Celestina Polo, the new-age yoga instructor Orville is involved with when he learns of his mother’s death; the spirit of his mother, Selma; and a full cast of Columbians including Bill Starbuck, his early mentor before medical school; Henry Schooner, his nemesis from boyhood; and Miranda Braak, a single mother with a strong interest in preserving the town’s quirky history.
Shem has a gift with assigning character roles; each slightly exaggerated personality plays a vital part in the novel. Although the characters are not deeply and intricately developed, the breadth of each major trait carries them. Even the names of each character are fitting: Celestina is flighty; Bill Starbuck guides Orville as Ahab’s first mate did in Moby Dick; and Henry Schooner is powerful, if sometimes misdirected, giving speeches that include “nucular” and “insinuendo”.
The novel is divided into three parts, for each major turning point; each section is introduced with an appropriate quote. Along the way, Orville Rose learns as a healer he also needs, and is capable of, healing himself. He sees that “what healed people had less to do with diagnosing and treating and more to do with connecting.”
The Spirit of the Place is a good choice for a book discussion group. The various themes it explores – relationships between mothers and sons, love and companionship, illness and healing – offer many points to explore. Rare is the person who doesn’t hold both a “public face” and a “private face”; The Spirit of the Place encourages us all, like Orville Rose, to look beyond the public face to the secrets that lie within.
Samuel Shem has published three previous novels – The House of God, Fine and Mount Misery. He collaborated with his wife, Janet Surrey, on several plays, including the award-winning off-Broadway play Bill W. and Dr. Bob. When Samuel Shem (nom de plume of Stephen Bergman) isn’t writing novels or plays, he makes his way as a member of the Harvard Medical School community. His background as a doctor shows not only in the detailed medical terminology peppered throughout the novel, but also in the insightful way he portrays the fear held by “broken” people and the compassion offered by healers of all types.