The Green Age of Asher Witherow is a coming of age tale set in nineteenth-century California in an immigrant coal mining town, during an age of explosive boom and then “bust” years of the coal harvesting business. Asher is a young boy who lives a modest, Christian life with his parents. His father is a coal miner, like the majority of men in the town, and Asher begins working in the mines as a child (child labor being customary in the nineteenth century in the United States).
At night, Asher attends school at the local seminary, which is where he strikes up an unusual camaraderie and relationship with Josiah Lyte, who holds a position in the pulpit as well as being Asher’s professor. Asher also has a more typical friendship with a boy named Thomas Motion, and when Thomas turns up missing, the finger is pointed at Josiah Lyte, whom the town tends to whisper about and rumors fly of his “wickedness.” However, there is no evidence that Josiah is responsible for the boy’s disappearance, and Asher holds a secret regarding Thomas close to his heart that only Josiah knows about.
As the novel progresses, Asher befriends a girl named Anna Flood. Anna recently moved with her family into town and Asher and Anna become close friends, although Asher still spends many an evening with Josiah, unbeknownst to Asher’s mother, who stridently disapproves of Josiah Lyte. When a series of events bring Asher, Asher’s mother and Josiah Lyte together, where only Josiah Lyte can help resolve unfortunate circumstances concerning Asher, Asher’s mother “comes around” and is able to see Josiah Lyte in a new, more accepting way.
The Green Age of Asher Witherow is not an easy book to read, but Cunningham does an impressive job in this gritty debut novel of a young Asher, a boy seemingly enthralled with the bizarre Josiah Lyte, as well as his relationship with Anna Flood. The author is a talented writer, but the writing becomes burdensome to follow at times (e.g., Then, as if the quiet night itself had respired deep, the whole of that chiaroscuro seemed to gain in depth and dimension and the scene drew wide on all sides till I found myself enveloped in a soft and vivid diorama.). The novel’s pace is uneven – it starts off slow, picks up in the middle of the book, and ends on a slow note. That said, the characters are interesting and reading about the life of coal miners in the nineteenth century in California is absolutely fascinating and is probably what I enjoyed most about the book. If you enjoy unusual literary novels with a gothic flair and strong characterization, then I recommend The Green Age of Asher Witherow.