The Great Depression of the 1930s brought the industrialization of this country to a halt. The twentieth century was awash in progress, propelled into a fast-moving future, indulging in opportunities never before available to the working class. Children left family farms to move to the prospering cities, flocking toward factories and beginning a gradual erosion of the family unit. It all collapsed for the American working class, who were thrown into unemployment, forced from their homes and left to wander in search of work.
Coulson sets his novel in those desperate years, following the troubles of one family, the Tollman's. Forced by greatly reduced circumstances to leave their home in Cleveland, the family sets up a tent in the country for a year, frozen by winter's chill, drenched by spring rain and anxious to save enough money to return to the city. This is a pivotal time for Phil and Stephen, the two oldest boys, as they wander the ice-crusted fields, climbing the barren trees of winter, burdened by the weight of a family touched by recent tragedy. By the time they return to Cleveland, their mother has gone blind for lack of an operation and their father has faded into a reclusive stranger.
The dark and brooding Phil and light-haired, sensitive Stephen both fall in love with a vital young woman, Katherine Lennox, a pianist and social activist with an enthusiasm for life that draws both young men to her like moths to flame. Their fated triangle plays out, permanently changing all of their lives.
Phil bludgeons his way through the following years, desperately unhappy with the choices he has made, while Stephen, a confirmed bachelor, remains in his brother's shadow, both emotionally supportive and frequently taunting his older brother. Their love-hate relationship is founded on affection, the brothers tied inextricably to their past. They struggle through five generations in the story, an enigma to Phil's sons and disquieted by their own failings.
This poignant novel of a family coming-of-age is defined by the tragedy of the early years. The weightiness of the plot is redeemed by its poetic vision of the innocence of two young boys who long to protect their mother and siblings from ever encroaching poverty. The emotional trauma of living through the Depression has ill-prepared these young men for life's future challenges, crippled by old resentments yet dedicated to one another since boyhood.
Coulson balances the heartbreak of reality with scenes of unearthly beauty, the tenderness and passion of first love and the impulsive yearning of young men for a world that has a place for them. The fully-fleshed characters serve to remind us that the stories of our ancestors may be obscured by time, but are no less relevant today, that once they knew the bright promise of youth and paid the price of their dreams.