The Recorder – Novel “Sugar Mountain” written in 2013 premonitory of the COVID-19 pandemic


“The news comes in an indirect, silent way, a flicker of words at the bottom of the screen: The World Health Organization is concerned about the reports of deaths due to an outbreak of bird flu in Xingjian province. Beijing officials deny access to WHO inspectors, calling the epidemic a “local affair”.

When local author Alfred Alcorn, 79, wrote these first words of his 2013 novel “Sugar Mountain,” he had no idea how prescient they were of a world in seven years. The story of Alcorn’s novel, which takes place in Franklin County, is both dramatized and eerily similar to the actual events of the past year and a half amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My luck, but no luck for the world. Part of me would rather I hadn’t been foresight, ”said Alcorn, sitting in his converted barn in Colrain.

With exposed beams, a wood-burning stove and a small kitchen, the barn mimics the farmhouse of the central figures of “Sugar Mountain”. Written in 2013, the novel chronicles the saga of Cryus Arkwright and his extended family retreating from their homes in New York City and the greater Boston area to the hills of western Massachusetts following a deadly epidemic. bird flu. In a matter of days, the fictitious flu quickly sweeps the world, causing the collapse of many facets of modern civilization.

The first chapters of the story see too similar events in the spring of 2020 as a presidential speech announces the need to wear masks and practice social distancing, and grocery store shelves are emptying frantically. Other more extreme events in the novel see staff abandon nursing home residents and violent militias cause “the Shelburne Falls fire.”

In the novel, individual characters and global governments wonder if the virus was created and escaped a lab – mirroring real-world claims, which are gaining traction in media circuits, that the COVID virus -19 could have leaked from a Chinese lab.

In addition to trying to stay safe from the deadly virus, the Arkwrights must make tough moral decisions to keep others out of their “pod,” a decision that, in the world of the novel, could prove fatal for him. those who are excluded. They are also preparing to face “the violence and lawlessness which spread with a contagion of their own”. Committed pacifist and “apocalyptic prepper,” Cyrus Arkwright, his wife Grace and their three sons have spent years making Sugar Mountain, their ancestral farm in Franklin County, a safe haven for their families.

“I wanted to try to figure out how a family like the Arkwrights would organize themselves, and this gathering,” Alcorn said.

“During all this time, I was writing fiction”

Born Alfred Denny, Alcorn grew up in the docks of Merseyside, England, the lush green fields of Ireland and on a dairy farm in South Chelmsford, Massachusetts. When his parents Alfred and Anna Cecilia (Brooks) Denny passed away, he and his brother Anthony moved to live with their grandfather, aunt and uncle in County Roscommon. After a year there, they were adopted by another aunt, Mary Brooks, who had emigrated to America, married a dairy farmer, Charles Walter Alcorn.

After graduating from high school at Keith Academy in Lowell, Alcorn studied at Harvard and graduated in 1965. His first job was as a reporter for the Alabama Journal in Montgomery, Alabama.

Two years later he worked as a columnist for the Boston Herald, later for CBS Radio Boston, and then for the Worcester Telegram. In 1971 he moved with his family to County Wicklow, Ireland, where he spent four years writing and soaking up the literary culture around Dublin.

Upon his return to the United States, he became editor-in-chief of the Harvard Gazette and held several positions at the university, the last as travel director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

“All this time, I was writing fiction and publishing my first novel, ‘The Pull of the Earth,’ with Houghton Mifflin in 1985,” recalls Alcorn.

Former Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press Publisher Jack Estes, who also narrated the audiobook on Audible, recalled a day when he and Alcorn were in a local men’s group they are members of. Estes said another member, Doug, was a “serious trainer” in real life and Alcorn asked him all kinds of questions about what one could do to prepare for cataclysmic events. As for the “preppers,” Estes and Alcorn said there are those who establish an off-grid life like the Arkwrights, and “the guys with guns waiting for Armageddon”.

Reaction to a Fractured Society

As the Arkwright family develops their sustainable property during the first phase of the pandemic outbreak, national, state and local governments shrivel up to anything but non-existence. It falls on the oldest son Jack, a veteran of the Army Ranger, to organize the defenses of Sugar Mountain by teaching the family to use their weaponry and military training.

The looming threat of violence exists primarily in the form of the McFerall brothers, Duncan and Bruce, whose family has a century-old feud with the Arkwrights over the actual property of Sugar Mountain. Reinforced by possession of stolen antiviral drugs and as a member of the National Guard, Duncan assumes command of arms and militia members.

Alcorn said the McFeralls represent an extreme example of reacting to a fractured society. He acknowledged that at the time of writing the 2013 novel, there was less public “hysteria” around Trump and race relations.

“The McFerall … I don’t think they exist, frankly,” he said before pausing. “Although they may exist.”

Are said he remembers the desolate society and the “kill or be killed” nature from the 1979 film “Mad Max” starring Mel Gibson.

“For me it’s the most horrific picture of the future,” Estes said.

As the Arkwrights build shelter and community with an extended family on their Sugar Mountain property, the characters see their human natures put to the test, and Cyrus and Jack disagree on how best to prepare. to the impending violent altercation with the McFeralls. In Jack’s case, Alcorn said he’s worried he might enjoy some of the things he’s pushed to do.

“This is the central question of the book, how far will we go? said Alcorn. “They, Jack and Cryus, ask this question several times.”

Character development

Alcorn said he developed the character of Jack through “a combination of memory, imagination and research.” He spoke with a college classmate who served in Vietnam who, while reluctant to share too much, gave a little insight into his experiences.

He also read military diaries of soldiers who served in the war in Afghanistan.

Through the story of this world-changing pandemic and its characters, Alcorn says that “Sugar Mountain” “explores the human species in extremism – that is, in the conditions that existed during the most of our evolutionary history “. He said he was inspired in part by a curiosity about the history of plagues through time, and cited other authors like Stephen King who created worlds as a result of cataclysmic disease.

Alcorn said he wanted to explore the ways in which pandemics throughout history have had profound effects on society and the dark and violent side of human nature. Speaking in his barn, he also expressed concern about the danger of another outbreak or further spread of the disease from a mutated and variant strand of the COVID-19 virus. If an even more deadly virus swept the world and allowed society to give freebies to the extent of “Sugar Mountain,” Alcorn said it is possible that “tribalism, in some, will reset.”

“It’s an uplifting tale,” Alcorn said of “Sugar Mountain”. “This is how it could have been, if things had been worse. Or if she, or something like that in a new form, should come back. Then it could be much more radical … Then I think the company could start to fragment. “

Alcorn has since written and published a dozen books, which Estes says generally contain more humor than “Sugar Mountain.” Alcorn is currently working on a novel called “The Art of Murder in the Museum of Man”, which is part of a series.

Alcorn’s September 2020 novel, “The Evil White Men Do,” is both a satirical and sympathetic version of the current unrest over Donald Trump and race relations in the United States. It’s a novel in the tradition of Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, JP Dunleavy and his own “Murder at the Museum of Man”, which the New Yorker has called “A Skillful and Hilarious Dispatch.”

His latest available book, “Geminius”, was published in January. Set in 2041, the novel revolves around all the Brain Emulation (WBE) Marcus Aurelius McIssac undergoes at the UPlode group labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a thriving for-profit company.

Zack DeLuca can be contacted at [email protected] or

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