Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Summer/Autumn 2005

The Greening of Ben Brown by Michael Strelow

The Greening of Ben Brown
Michael Strelow
Hawthorne Books
Portland, Oregon
Trade paperback, 267 pp., $15.95
(Reviewed by Amy Andrews)  

After a terrible accident sent enough electric current through his body to have killed him, electric company lineman Ben Brown turned green. Without any ideas from the medical community about why it happened or how long it would last, Ben takes his settlement from the company and relocates to East Leven, a small riverside town in Oregon. Physically healthy, he notices the only after-effects are an increased sensitivity to the presence of chemicals and electricity, and the fact that he seems to be getting younger.

The people of East Leven are naturally curious about their most visible resident, better known locally as the Green Man, and devise their own theories about his origins and his purpose. As time passes, he eventually fades from everyday conversation and becomes just another resident of East Leven, a town threaded by numerous creeks, each with its own ghost (legend has it that a sacrifice is periodically demanded by the water in return for the good fortune it allows the town—the most well-known ghost being Anne Doucette, who broke her neck in a fall off a bridge at age 12) and best known for it’s largest employer, Horchow Inc., an industrial metals manufacturer. Ben Brown is just another resident, that is, until the Green Man takes dramatic action that thrusts Horchow into the public eye, and himself squarely into the crosshairs of the townspeople, the media, and the law.

With a quirky cast of supporters, most of whom are living more or less on the physical or social fringe like himself, Ben Brown manages to polarize the town’s residents like nothing since the famous split over the decision whether or not to plant non-native trees in East Leven. 

Debut novelist Michael Strelow’s prose is wonderfully descriptive, especially in describing the natural characteristics of East Leven, and clearly demonstrates his affection for the state he’s called home for more than thirty years. Of Ben Brown, he writes, “Of course, his greenness depends on the light. Coppery green? No, greener. Like a dark fog, an alligator just under muddy water, reptile green. In shadow, brown like a dark nut.

But Ben Brown is a curious character. On the one hand, he’s overcome by the chemicals in the sprays in a local filbert orchard, yet he can withstand whatever’s in the poisonous sludge kept in pools in Horchow’s fenced property. Did Ben Brown know that the waste products from the industrial processes were already polluting the river before he made his grand gesture, calling attention to the damage in the most visible way possible? Why, if he’s so “green” would he risk exacerbating any environmental damage by making his point?

The Greening of Ben Brown has an interesting premise, but the lack of a personal back-story for the title character makes it feel rather flat, as do the opening pages where Strelow takes his time setting up the action. There are several open-ended aspects of the book: who Ben Brown really is; why he chose to act; the identities and motivations of the person or persons who want to harm him after he makes his stand against Horchow; and the true impact of Ben’s actions on the town. No clear answers are given to the reader; however, other answers are revealed to things the reader doesn’t even realize are questions, which is kind of awkward and (for me, at least) prompted a bit of flipping back and forth between the front and back of the book. The explanations make sense; they’re just answering questions you hadn’t thought to ask.

While some readers relish such fluidity in a novel and the interpretation it makes possible, others may find it unsatisfying. Is Ben Brown’s purpose in the town of East Leven supposed to be that of another sacrifice to the water, the price exacted by the river for the town’s bounty? Or perhaps to draw attention to East Leven’s poor stewardship of the river? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, or perhaps I’m just not smart enough to figure it out. Either way, The Greening of Ben Brown makes for an interesting case study of one Oregon town’s unique relationship with the land.

– AA –