A debut novel by a Virginia Tech alum is getting praise for its take on the complexities of love and change in the wake of war.
“The Fallen Snow” is an early 20th century story set --both in a close knit, Appalachian Town-- and war time France. John Kelley began thinking about the idea for the book when he was in college in Blacksburg, thirty years ago.
“At the time I was a freshman. I was a new cadet and I was still adjusting to life here in Blacksburg. I was a Florida boy and I had been pledged to join military society and the last initiation was to do a mountain run with our rifles and a backpack of bricks and it was winter and it was raining; pouring, pouring rain," said Kelley.
The grueling exercise made John Kelley think of Cadets who came before him, who had run this same trail, some of whom went to war. Kelley later became an Air Force Officer and ultimately worked in the private sector, but the calling he felt on that trek up Brush Mountain never left him.
“The thing that has always held my appeal about the story, and I think the reason it stuck with me all these years is that the story was not so much about the war, but what about happens afterward.”
The Fallen Snow opens as a young man returns to a tiny Virginia town where he grew up. Joshua Hunter has been injured physically and emotionally by the battle.
“And even though it started out as Joshua’s story, all of these other characters came into it so naturally with their own issues. There’s the fact that that was the same autumn as the influenza epidemic and 50 million people around the globe died and just the fact that there could be that much tragedy going on at the same time, and yet you now that people still lived, and they still fell in love."
Kelley uses war as a metaphor for change. He juxtaposes it with the constancy of the south western Virginia landscape with its majestic mountain ridges as far as the eye could see.
“For me it was important that the story be set against this backdrop and, you know, the town of Hadley, which is a fictional town is kind of straddling this old growth forest, that has not been devastated like pretty much all the hillsides around. And so this idea of them kind of teetering between this world coming to a close; it’s kind of the end of a small boom town, and yet there is still this echo of the past that’s there.”
The title, The Fallen Snow evokes the war dead and wounded and the way that snow can make you see things differently like a soldier returning home.
“He looked up when he heard the whistle. A freight train barreled along a far track, not slowing. The thunder rose to a feverish clamor. Just a train that was all. No grenades or gunfire. No shells or gasses. Yet his body made no distinction. He felt the ringing in his air and felt the tightness in his chest. He fled home as he had each night on the front. An orchard of hardwoods blanketed the land. By now prominent Oak, Chestnut and Hickory would have cloaked the ridge in deep reds and muted yellows. Beneath their twisting canopy, he could wander for hours among hay scented ferns, through sprinklings of Mountain Laurel, Witch Hazel and Dogwood. Stands of Birch and Dogwood clung to the high mountain ridges. Groves of Hemlock shielded rocky streams below. He remained there, safe along the wooded slopes even after the train had passed. When he could breathe again, he opened his eyes. He wiped his neck, feeling the slender chain beneath his palm. His hand grew damp.”