For more than five years now, Marilyn Pappano has been busily populating a whole small town in New York State with her characters, but Cabin Fever was my first trip to Bethlehem. Like me, the heroine of Cabin Fever was also a newcomer, and like Nolie Harper, I came to feel comfortable in Ms. Pappano’s town.
Nolie and her daughter, Micahlyn, are refugees from Whiskey Creek, Arkansas. Nolie lived her whole, short life in Whiskey Creek - orphaned at age 18; married a year later; a mother at 20; and widowed at 22. After Jeff died, her in-laws took her in and provided both Nolie and Micahlyn with everything they needed - everything but some degree of independence for Nolie. So when Nolie’s great-uncle died and left her two cabins and a feed store…something that would only happen in a novel!…she packed up the car and left for Bethlehem, over her in-laws’ fierce opposition.
Five-year-old Micahlyn wasn’t too happy, either, having been brainwashed by her grandparents into believing that she will hate her new home. When they reach the cabins - one is already rented out for a year, they will live in the larger one - Micahlyn refuses to get out of the car. Nolie decides to wait her out and starts cleaning the cabin. Suddenly, Micahlyn screams and dashes for her mother. “’Mama, Mama, the bogeyman’s outside,’” she shrieks. Nolie starts to reassure her child, then looks out at a very scary man: big, surly, unshaven, and rank with body odor. The man reluctantly identifies himself as Chase and tells her that he is her tenant in the smaller cabin. Nolie thought she had rented the cabin to a woman; she hadn’t bargained on Chase.
Thirty-one-year-old Chase is hiding out from life. Before he was wrongly convicted and sent to prison, he was a high-priced criminal lawyer, living in Boston with his gorgeous and expensive wife. When he was convicted of embezzlement, his wife divorced him, and he spent 22 months in jail. All he has left to his name is a beat-up SUV and the eleven months left on the lease on his cabin. He doesn’t want to see anybody, talk to anybody, or do anything except sleep and drink beer. He especially doesn’t want “some woman and her kid living fifty yards down the road.”
Shortly after they arrive…right after Nolie starts getting the feed store ready to reopen…two of Bethlehem’s dowagers pay Nolie an unofficial welcoming visit and leave her with a generous basket of food. Nolie has been raised to be neighborly, so she takes some of the bounty over to Chase…a Chase who has just showered for the first time in days. Much to his own surprise, instead grabbing the goodies and slamming the door in Nolie’s face, Chase sits down on the top step of the porch and chats with her as he eats. You can all see what’s coming: Chase has just taken his first step toward rehabilitation, a rehabilitation that will include Nolie.
There were a lot of things I liked about Cabin Fever, one thing I didn’t like, and a final aspect I can’t make up my mind about. As far as what I liked, I liked that Nolie is a size 16 who relies on comfort foods to get her over life’s rough patches…and she’s had more than enough rough patches in her 25 years. Furthermore, she is shy about getting naked because of her well-upholstered body. I could relate to that, and I’d be willing to bet that I’m not alone in my sympathy. Life had roughed Chase up, too, and I found his road back to civilized behavior believable. I liked the secondary romance, although I wasn’t too happy when I found out that it was unresolved at the novel’s end. Obviously, this pair of lovers will get their own book.
Besides the Welcome Wagon dowagers, there are two other 60-ish women in Cabin Fever. Don’t worry if you can’t tell them apart…they are cut from the same cloth…both are self-centered and manipulative, and both are quick to make hurtful verbal attacks on whoever opposes them. No doubt there are these sorts of women around, but two in one book?
Finally, there are two angels over-looking Bethlehem’s affairs. And over-looking is just about all they do. Except in one instance, their roles are limited to nudging people in the right direction, by appearing at key crossroads in people’s lives and encouraging them to take the most positive course. They externalize the characters’ inner voices. So how come, when…at the denouement…a key character changes dramatically, we are not shown any angelic intervention? That was the only reason I could find for the character’s about face. Given that omission, does the presence of angels add anything to the story? Just a touch of whimsy, I decided.
Taken all in all, I enjoyed my visit to Bethlehem. If Bethlehem itself was a little too idyllic…and it was…Nolie and Chase were very real, with very real problems that I empathized with. I think you’ll find a trip to Bethlehem worth your while, too.
--Nancy J. Silberstein