Saturday, April 6, 2024

I Cheerfully Refuse by Leif Enger

I Cheerfully Refuse by Leif Enger is a hope-filled adventure tale set in the not-too-distant future on and along the shores of Lake Superior. The novel is Odysseus meets Orpheus mixed with a touch of Treasure Island in an increasingly illiterate society where a small ruling class makes and enforces all rules with cruelty and vengeance. Enger is best known for his character-driven, poetic novel Peace Like a River and his other tender novels set in the upper Midwest. This is his first foray into apocalyptic fiction, where he retains the beauty of the luminous descriptions and strong characters we love from his earlier books.

Lark is a used bookseller who buys and loves books in a world that both bans and burns them. Her husband Rainy, who’s madly in love with her, is a bass player who shows the reader the healing power of music. They take in Kellan, an escaped indentured servant (yes, indentured servitude has returned to the U. S.), who arrives at Lark’s shop with an advance copy of a mid-20th century unpublished manuscript, I Cheerfully Refuse, by her favorite poet/essayist. The foreshadowing in that title lets us know that these characters won’t readily give up what they consider essential. 

The first third of the book sets up the new world order and the incandescent landscape Lark and Rainy inhabit. Soon oligarchs and their followers, searching for what they believe Kellen has stolen, kill Lark, so Rainy flees into Lake Superior on an ancient sailboat with an unstable motor. This is where the book veers and Lake Superior becomes what Enger agrees is “the beating heart of the book.” Rainy’s journey there mirrors the coming of the Tashi Comet as he, a kind and virtuous character, begins to thaw from his frozen state of grief on the unpredictable waters of the inland sea when he rescues Sol, a ten-year-old girl also escaping demons, and he further endangers himself. Like Orpheus, Rainy and Sol travel through a frightening underworld chased by an evil villain as Rainy uses his music to overpower that evil. Their travails also mirror those in Treasure Island with its inebriated cast, elusive treasure, and mutineers. 

The novel celebrates the transformative power of learning to love and care for another and the importance of being true to oneself. This sailing adventure attacks the consequences of climate change and the threat of absolute rulers and their intoxicating temptations. Rainey sums up his music with its power to calm even the most horrible and powerful in this musing: “Eventually, I came down on the bedrock of an old American hymn. An earnest chant from before my time, when the church was briefly other than an instrument of war. I liked it for its clarity and yearning, its warm dawn of a chorus.” Then he observes, “What scares me is the notion we are all one rotten moment, one crushed hope or hollow stomach from stuffing someone blameless in a cage.” 

Summing it Up: Read this hopeful sailing adventure with its conniving characters chasing the kind, courageous people who are fighting against what seems to be an impenetrable controlling class. Stick with the beginning of the book as it builds the new world, then soar with speed under a heavy wind when Rainy sets sail to save himself and rescue Sol. Ron Charles of The Washington Post calls it “the sweetest apocalyptic novel yet” and “an alluring itinerary toward hope.” I agree.

Rating:  5 Stars 

Publication Date: April 2, 2024

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Author Website: 

Interview with the Author: 

What Others Are Saying: 


Foreword Reviews: 

Publishers Weekly: 

The Star Tribune: 

The Washington Post: 

A book that reads like music, both battle hymn and love song for our world. A true epic—heartbreaking, terrifyingly prophetic, but above all, radically hopeful.  — Violet Kupersmith, author of Build Your House Around My Body

“There’s a playfulness and a seriousness of purpose to the latest from the Minnesota novelist, a spirit of whimsy that keeps hope flickering even in times of darkest despair.” — Kirkus Reviews

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