A novel about a man who retires from the military and returns home to Scotland, where the wartime death of his best friend and neighbor is still strongly felt. 1959.
Still Glides the Stream is very, very different from any other D. E. Stevenson novel I’ve read. For one thing, the main character is a man. For another thing, the main character is dead.
DES isn’t known for writing loud novels, exactly, but this one is exceptionally quiet. To me it also feels cautious, like the author is careful to keep the story tightly reined-in, not letting it become something other than what she intends it to be. The result is a book that doesn’t exactly hook you from the first line, but instead absorbs you, slowly and completely, over the course of just a few hundred pages.
The novel opens with Will, a man in his thirties, retiring from the military and returning to his home in the Scottish countryside. He has a sort of Rip Van Winkle feel as he becomes reacquainted with all the sights and memories of his childhood. Foremost among his memories is the adventures he shared with two neighbor children, brother and sister Rae and Patty, who were like his own brother and sister.
During the war, right before he was due home on leave, Rae was killed. It’s arguably this loss that has made Will hesitant to return home in the last dozen or so years. Now that he’s returned, Will is startled by the sight of Rae and Patty’s father, who has turned into a frail old man since Will last saw him. The mother, whom Will affectionally addresses as “Aunt,” is likewise changed, though her changes are in the mind rather than the body: she lives in a fog of memory, a fog in which her son is still alive and ready to come home as soon as he obtains leave.
Then there’s Patty, the sister that Rae and Will shared. Patty has remained at home all this time, afraid to leave her ailing parents. She’s recently become engaged to a cousin who, now that Rae is gone, will inherit the family estate. Will takes an instant dislike to the cousin (in spite of having never met him). Will suspects this is all too tidily arranged to be genuine; Patty can’t really love this cousin fellow.
One day while reminiscing together in their childhood playroom, Patty pulls out a letter and shows it to Will. The letter arrived after Rae’s death, so for fear of upsetting her parents further, Patty never showed it to anyone. The letter is a short, giddy thing, Rae excitedly telling Patty that when he comes home on leave, he’ll have some big news to share with the family, and he hopes he can count on her for support.
But they never found out what Rae’s big news was, and the not knowing has bothered Patty all these years. Will determines, quietly, that he will go to France and make inquiries at the farm where Rae was billeted during the war. But upon arriving in France, Will learns that the farmer has been dead for many years, the farm sold shortly thereafter. Will does, however, obtain a lead that sends him on a “wild goose chase” across France. (Maybe you can guess the object of this chase, but I won’t give it away here.) Along the way, Will experiences a little romance, some very amusing cross-cultural encounters, and the chance to return to Scotland bearing restorative news for Rae’s family.
The first half of the novel follows the thoughts and actions of Will, and the second half likewise follows Patty, but I still maintain that the main character in this story is actually Rae. All of the plot centers around him; the wide variety of characters all have him in common. You’d think that focusing so much on a dead person could get rather gloomy, but I wouldn’t call this a depressing book. Rae was a normal sort of man, but he was also bright, cheerful, and he loved whole-heartedly. When his friends and family dwell on memories of him, they’re happy memories.
By the novel’s end, I promise that you’ll find yourself wishing you knew Rae—but also feeling like, in a way, you do know and love him. This is the power of DES’s storytelling in all of her novels. Characters from one of her books are also known to re-appear in another (Amberwell, which I haven’t yet read, makes a small cameo in Still Glides the Stream). This adds to the sense that DES’s characters are real people, with lives that extend beyond the confines of one single book’s pages.
I get the sense that Still Glides the Stream is not one of DES’s most-sought-out works, and I can understand why. It’s a pretty different kind of book, even within the DES oeuvre. Still, I’d call it very much worthwhile reading. If you like quiet, postwar novels delivered with genuine depth, this one will perfectly fit the bill.