Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2006 | Reviews

Icebergs by Rebecca Johns

By Carol Harker
Icebergs by Rebecca Johns

In her three-part debut novel spanning more than five decades, Rebecca Johns explores "how the past butts up with the present," creating echoes that resound repeatedly in the lives of her characters.

Icebergs begins in 1944 with a World War II plane crash in the remote wilderness of Labrador. Most of the crew of the B24 bomber die instantly, but radio operator Walt Dunmore digs himself out of a snowbank and frees a badly wounded Alister Clark from the wreckage. The two men keep company as they await rescue, but only Walt survives to return to civilian life and his young bride in rural Ontario.

Linked forever by the crash, first the Dunmore and then the Clark family ultimately leave Canada for Chicago and part two of the book. It's 1967, when love interests between Al's daughter Caroline and the two Dunmore boys flare, when the Vietnam War divides the country, and when a tragic accident claims a life at home. Throughout, Walt and his wife Dottie provide the practical, emotional support people need.

Johns advances her narrative to 1999 in part three of the novel, when Walt unexpectedly gets sick and dies, a victim of the radiation he was exposed to during the war. By now, Dottie has become vulnerable in mind and body, her son Sam's daughters are nearly grown, and Caroline is teaching poetry at an Ontario college while her husband tends their orchard. The families have moved beyond the physical closeness they knew in Chicago, but they are still tied—and the "echoes of voices and faces and events" continue to shape them.

It is this last part of Icebergs that speaks most movingly. Johns exhibits great empathy for her characters, people who conceal as much of themselves as the icebergs in the North Atlantic, and gives Dottie especially a convincing wisdom gained by a lifetime of experience. Often beautifully written and always compassionate, Icebergs is an impressive first novel.