Published in 1953, The Marmot Drive was the first of John Hersey’s novels not set during WWII. It takes place over a weekend in a New England village, when the town decides to drive out a plague of “marmots” or woodchucks. This happens to be the weekend when Eben Avered brings his fiancée Hester out from New York City to meet his charismatic father, the town’s Selectman, and his faded mother.
The book is a mishmash of conflicts and contradictions. Eben and his father are in a continual battle over ideas, values, and Hester – the kind of battle all too recognizable between powerful men and their newly adult sons. Hester battles with Eben and herself. The villagers battle with each other, rearrange allegiances, and battle some more. And everyone battles the woodchucks.
The book has all the markings of allegory, but it hard to tell what the allegory is. Do the woodchucks stand for something else? Cityfolk? Black people? Commies? All might have been possible contenders back in the 1950s, depending on whether the village is to be condemned for the drive or praised. But the book does not tie things together so easily.
The novel ends up a big stewpot of paradox, where the characters are more bad than good, the country people more open minded than the city people, all of life more complicated than simple. It is thought-provoking and interesting, but peters out in a messy, paltry ending, just like the marmot drive itself.