Modern science has brought mankind countless ways by which our predetermined physical destiny may be altered: vaccines, antibiotics and cancer-fighting treatments, to name but three. Along the way, scientists have also developed ways in which to test individual genetic make-up to determine inclusion or omission of certain genes. Unfortunately, while such tests can inform a patient that they carry a genetic map that leads to a particular condition --- like Huntington’s Disease, for example --- today’s medicine has no tools that can be used to change the diagnosis.
In ETERNAL ON THE WATER, Joseph Monninger explores the impact this medical “crystal ball” has on one woman, her life and the lives of those she loves. Mary Fury’s father died of Huntington’s at age 41. She and her brother, Freddy, both know that the odds of them carrying and contracting the disease is 50-50. Still, they have chosen to assume nothing; they refuse to give the disease a place in their lives and live every day as if they have everything to lose. Mary wakes up every single morning with a seize-the-day (and moment) attitude. A professor at the University of New Hampshire, an animal behaviorist and a specialist on corvidae (the bird family that includes crows, ravens and rooks), Mary is a teller of endless crow folklore and knock-knock jokes. She knows exactly how many days she has been alive and sometimes forgets to eat, hasn’t been kissed in almost a year, and, above all, is a Chungamunga Girl.
The Chungamunga Girls are an ever-changing, ragtag collection of young ladies who are assembled once a year by the charitable and non-profit Chungamunga Foundation. Every girl is there on scholarship, and all have some physical trait that will most likely severely shorten their lifespan. Accompanied by several counselors (themselves Chungamunga Girls at one point in their lives) and Wally, a larger-than-life cigar-smoking, caftan-wearing chief cook and bottle washer (and Field Director of the foundation), the girls spend one month on a fantastic magical mystery tour down the Allagash River in Maine, where fairy tales become real as they become Lost Girls of the deep woods. Mary always plays an integral part in the trip, whether it’s creating dancing bears out of campfire shadows, giving biology lessons at a moose kill, or regaling the girls with stories of Crow Kings and missing jewels. Mary knows for herself the importance of the trips to these girls, some of whom may be gone by year’s end, while others, like Mary, will still be struggling years later with their fate.
As Mary prepares for her annual trek, she meets Jonathan Cobb, a young teacher currently on sabbatical who is attempting a 92-mile solitary kayak trip down the Allagash Waterway, following in the footsteps of his idol, Thoreau. Meeting the girl of his dreams was never part of his plan. But there at the first campsite --- in a red checked Mackinaw and Mad Bomber hat with ear flaps and putting up a tent with way more skill than he possesses --- is Mary Fury.
Mary and Cobb discover an instant connection and within 24 hours are lying together under a starry sky discussing the future. Several days later, after introducing Cobb to the concept of and the actual current crop of Chungamunga Girls, she answers his question about why she herself is a part of this special group of girls and women who consider themselves “eternal on the water.” A lifelong love is something Mary has never allowed herself to think about, she explains. She has also taken care of never passing on the Huntington’s gene by eliminating the possibility of having children. She tells Cobb why she has never submitted herself to the test, but then goes on to say that in the mere days since they met, she has reconsidered and puts forth a proposal.
They will say goodbye at the end of the trip. She will travel on to a medical center at Dartmouth where she will have the test, but she will leave the results with her mother and continue on with her original plans of visiting her brother, an ecological warrior, in Indonesia. The rest is up to Cobb, and she is very clear that he cannot make a wrong or bad choice; all he can make is the choice that is best for him. He can call her mother for the test results, or not. He can meet Mary in Indonesia, or not. He can go back to his sabbatical, his teaching career at St. Paul’s School and a life without her, or not. All this is laid in Cobb’s lap, but no matter what he may or may not decide to do, she is adamant about one point: whether or not he sees the test results and regardless of whether or not he chooses to continue the relationship, he is never to tell her what he does or does not know. Mary is much better at living each day as if it were her last, and is much too afraid of losing this outlook on life, either because of receiving a death sentence or by getting the ultimate pardon.
ETERNAL ON THE WATER is a book about taking charge of one’s destiny when the future is unknown. It’s about not being afraid of life or death, and how people, who understand that their days just might be numbered, make sure that each and every one of those days are filled with purpose, love and meaning, so that their impact may be felt for eternity.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on January 21, 2011
Eternal on the Water