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Parkinson's Pete Reviews "The Highest Tide"

Friday July 06, 2018

 

The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. 246 pp.

 

Not many novels are narrated by an undersized thirteen-year-old boy who has a romantic crush on his former babysitter. Not many novels focus on the strange adventures of a boy who spends his free time and many of his nights wandering the low-tide mud flats of south Puget Sound looking for exotic specimens that he can sell to local museums and gift shops. Not many novels build their plots around the unexpected, and generally unwelcome, arrival of marine plant and fish species from other parts of the world in the Pacific Northwest saltwater bays. Not many novels feature an aging psychic with Parkinson’s disease. Not many novels, in other words, are like Jim Lynch’s “The Highest Tide”.

Young Miles O’Malley, troubled by his parents’ impending separation, spends much of his time on the low-tide mud flats around Olympia, the capital of Washington state. He also frequently visits Florence Dalessandro, his aging neighbor who is in the late stages of Parkinson’s. We come to understand Florence’s disease as the boy Miles does, bit by debilitating bit:

“I found her with an inch-long forehead gash like boxers get along the seams of their eyebrows. I knew she had some cruel variation of Parkinson’s. She’d shown me the paperwork, but I was slow to understand what it was doing to her. I just knew that she seemed stiffer almost every time I saw her, and at some point she’d started shuffling instead of walking. She’d rock her shoulders to loosen her feet, then she’d baby-step toward the kitchen as if crossing a wet log. And when you shuffle, I learned, you eventually fall” (46).

Florence is by no means the central character in “The Highest Tide”, but her presence helps to show the essential kindness of Miles, who is the central character. Florence lives alone in her bayside bungalow. She can do so only because the caring and generous Miles stops in from time to time to fix her a bowl of soup, to help her keep track of her medicines, and even, as her symptoms worsen, to help her get on and off the toilet. A county magistrate tries to persuade a county social worker to get Florence committed to an institution: “She really should be in a nursing home. . . . I spoke with her neurologist last month. There’s nothing more he can give her. It’s dangerous for her to be alone, and it only gets worse” (114).

But Florence refuses to go. She is determined to stay in her own home. For her a nursing home is “a place where people sit in wheelchairs shitting themselves. You do realize I eventually won’t be able to talk, right? How am I going to tell them what I need if I can’t talk?” (198).

At one point in the novel, Florence, who claims to have psychic powers, predicts that on a certain day in September the highest tide in fifty years will dramatically raise the level of Puget Sound. Her prediction comes true.

Jim Lynch never quite makes up his mind which of four tributaries he really wants to follow in The Highest Tide: 1) the story of a young boy’s coming of age, 2) a condemnation of the press and the public for exploiting that boy’s fresh way of looking at the world around him, 3) a nostalgic tribute, in the tradition of Rachel Carson, to what had once been a pristine ocean, or 4) a layman’s introduction to the amazing variety of marine life to be found along the shores of Puget Sound.

The account of Florence’s lonely and heroic suffering with Parkinson’s does not flow gracefully into any of those four tributaries. “The Highest Tide” can most generously be described as “richly textured.” It will be of particular interest to readers associated with the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation because it is one of the very few books by a Northwestern author that deals with a Northwestern landscape and with Northwestern scientific and medical issues. It gives readers much to discuss, such as whether Florence is justified in committing suicide by taking too many sleeping pills and why it is important to her to take them on the night of the highest tide.

 

Pete Beidler has read and reviewed many books about Parkinson’s disease. His Parkinson Pete’s Bookshelves: Reviews of Eighty-Nine Books about Parkinson’s Disease (Coffeetown Press, 2018, ISBN 978-1-60381-746-2) can be purchased from Amazon.com

Peter G. BeidlerPeter G. Beidler
Peter G. Beidler

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