Author Jen Watkins with her chicken at home in El Rancho. Courtesy photo
By BONNIE J. GORDON
Los Alamos Daily Post
New Mexico author Jen Watkins lives just down the road from Los Alamos in El Rancho. She left her job at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where she worked as a computational social scientist modeling human behavior, to spend two years sailing in the Pacific. Her writing career began aboard the 42-foot sailboat “Red Herring”.
Watkins’ novel “So Pipe the Young” is set in rural Box Elder, N.M. It’s not unlike many small towns in the state, where families have lived there for generations and outsiders are few.
The novel’s heroine, Annabelle Granger, a robotics engineer from suburban Michigan is a fish out of water in rural New Mexico. When a death at school impacts her five-year-old son Heath, it serves as a catalyst for her to make massive changes in her life without really examining the implications.
“When you move to a new place that’s very different, it’s easy to make wrong assumptions,” Watkins said. “Tiny misunderstandings can grow into real problems.”
Are the neighbors isolating Annabelle or is she isolating herself? Are the neighbor kids neglected or just independent and free spirited? Her husband travels constantly for work. Is he having an affair or just really busy? Is her online success with documenting her new rural life a good replacement for her job or is it becoming an obsession? Neither the reader nor Annabelle knows for sure.
“You’re supposed to be swept up in Annabelle’s concerns,” Watkins said. “Neither you nor she can see what’s really happening. Her only conversations are online and in her head. She feels the weight of a decision that isn’t working.”
The reader’s identification with Annabelle makes the story heart-wrenching as well as giving it an extra dose of creepiness when things start to go amiss.
Annabelle’s one real connection is with Maud, the ancient and ailing dog the family inherits from the former residents. This is one aspect of the story that is based on Watkins’ experience in El Rancho. She inherited three dogs along with her new home.
“Annabelle isn’t well-suited to rural life,” Watkins said. “When she gets unhappy it’s time to move on. In a rural setting like this one, people are there for the long haul.”
The title of the novel comes from a 17th century painting by Jan Steen, which takes its title from a line in a folk song—“As the old sing, so pipe the young.” Annabelle is an oil painter and would have known this work. Annabelle’s paintings are both realistic and slightly creepy.
The title gives a clue to a major theme of the novel. What are we teaching our children about how to live their lives? So much is learned without a word being spoken.
“So Pipe the Young” is the first in a series of books called Dark Season—each takes place in a different season. This first one is set in summer and the next one will be in winter. It takes place at a writers retreat at a rustic cabin in Minnesota. All the books will be psychological mysteries.
Though “So Pipe the Young” leaves you unsettled, it’s powerful. Watkins’ work might be compared to that of Gillian Flynn, but it has a flavor all its own. It’s very much worth your time.
“So Pipe the Young” is available at most online booksellers. It is also available in the Jemez Springs and Los Alamos libraries. Visit Watkins online at jenwatkins.com.