A DARK MUSIC, by Robert Froese, Flat Bay Press, Harrington, Maine, paperback, $15.
Want to know what it’s like to go on a successful archaeological dig in the southern New Mexico desert during a hot summer? Read Robert Froese’s new novel, “A Dark Music,” in which he describes the science of archaeology as an “endless backbreaking letdown,” and “like working a construction site where nothing gets built.” The excitement, however, for the scientists and their students comes when something does get discovered, and in this arresting novel, something big is unearthed, a mummy from perhaps 23,000 years ago, maybe “the archaeology find of the century.”
Some readers initially may be turned off by the plethora of geological terminology, which mostly goes unexplained, with terms such as spall, tuff, carpring, bioturbation, lithics, taphonomy and chert debitage. But the book is not only a good introduction to what it is archaeologists actually do, it’s also a love story between the two main characters. Emily Franklin is an undergraduate who makes her own jewelry from stuff she collects, and who is on her first dig. Will Stanton is a graduate research assistant, who is described as a “stone and tool” specialist with the hots for mathematical analysis, who also enjoys going naked in the desert.
Emily, adventurous as Will, enjoys exploring the desert by herself, which leads her into dangerous territory a couple of times when she is almost killed during a lightning storm and is almost raped by another man who is part of the team in the camp. There’s a mountain lion on the prowl, too, which makes everyone nervous.
However, it’s the landscape itself that’s the strongest, most unforgettable character in the story, lovingly described throughout.
“The land is a text,” Froese writes, “a meaningful complexity of sand and rock, dust and vegetation. Long ago the first human beings ventured here, left their marks, and vanished. And the land went on rearranging itself, gathering and tilting its shapes like waves against the wind, against the sun. And now THESE human beings arrive. They cut carefully into the record, knell and squat together, quietly contemplating. As if the ones who came before were sending messages.”
“Archaeologists,” explains the author, “even under normal circumstances, are highly territorial creatures” … and “cataclysmic burials are the sort of territory attractive to dogs and archaeologists.” He reminds us, too, that “geology has not stopped. We are still embroiled in it. … we practice science because of the need to understand. It’s not a practice we can afford to take lightly.” He has one of his characters say at one point, “Whatever is here, the stone knows.”
The title of the book is explained right at the beginning of the dig when young Emily begins to realize “And so, too, like a dark music, those first humans at some point entered and occupied this space.”
Whether he intended to, the author makes a good case of archaeology being a lot like writing, digging out the story, the poem, the human history.
Robert Froese, a professor of creative writing and film at the University of Maine of Machias, has published two previous novels, “The Hour of Blue” and “The Forgotten Condition of Things.” As a scholar, he’s well-qualified to write about archaeology since he has a bachelor’s degree in geology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he also received his master’s degree in communications. He also holds a master’s and doctorate in English from SUNY-Albany. He lives in Machias with his wife, Leonore Hildebrand, who is an artist, and who provided the handsome cover design of the New Mexico desert for “A Dark Music.”
Self-published, the book is available from the author at Flat Bay Press, P.O. Box 217, Harrington, Maine 04643.