Book Review: Susan Henderson’s “The Flicker of Old Dreams”

BY: A.m. Larks

Isolation and ostracization feature heavily in Susan Henderson’s latest novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams. The setting is Petroleum, Montana, population 182 and decreasing, “Those who’ve heard of Petroleum are often surprised it’s still here. The town is primarily known for what it no longer has: oil.”  In a town this small, the people of Petroleum are required to be interdependent upon one another because the trains have stopped running, there is no cell service, and the winters are long and harsh.

“This view of Petroleum is picaresque as the community, every single member, it seems, helps to shovel what they can.” And in part, this view of Petroleum is true: “The festival is less a celebration than a day to prepare for the upcoming snowstorms. Today neighbors will weatherproof homes, share tools, supplies, and labor.” “One of the neighbors with a snowplow attached to the front of his truck scrapes up and down the streets. This should make it easier to get to the highway.” The people who stay in Petroleum are committed to community and interdependence: “This is the life we commit to here. That we cannot rely on others. That no one can reach us so we better help ourselves.” However, in any social group, there exist dissidents. The Flickers of Old Dreams explores what happens to two such “outsiders.”

Mary, the protagonist, is the town’s embalmer and someone who has never quite acclimated to life in Petroleum. “I’m used to being out of the loop—part of the stigma of living in this house.” Beginning in childhood, many aspects of Mary’s life were differentiating factors: “. . . kids afraid to touch anything after I did, and adults whispering, The poor strange girl without a mother. What it must do to her to be around the dead all day long.” Stigma of the disparate life survives in the memories of the inhabitants of a town this size. Who you were is who you always are.  “And I could feel the shame of the strange child I’d become.” Mary internalizes her isolation, living within but not part of Petroleum.  The shame of abnormality makes Mary withdraw: “. . . I was no longer anxious to make friends. In fact, I was anxious to keep to myself. All my life, I have learned the lesson that closeness is tangled up with rejection and shame.”

There are aspects of Mary’s life that set her apart from the rest of Petroleum: her family, her job, her house, and her awareness of her “otherness.” “The worry is always the same, that I’m odd and ought to hide the fact best I can.” “I have to think before I speak, smile when I don’t feel like it.”

Isolation is not confined to Mary. Mary’s father—an alcoholic funeral home director on the verge of bankruptcy—is plagued by the fact his daughter just doesn’t fit in and withdraws from interaction. Mary and her father are confined by all that is unsaid between them.  “None of us knew how to do this. We had started this idea of talking things out too late.” Indeed, Mary’s closest relationship in Petroleum is hardly intimate at all, “. . . because this is what we do. We only let each other get so close.” Mary, playing her role as daughter, feels forced to hide herself, even with him and even within the walls of her own home: “It hurts how a lie is the happiest I can make him.” “Sometimes I feel like we get along best when I tell only pieces of the truth.” Henderson makes the point that isolation is not always apparent; it exists in all realms public and private, and it can even occur in between our closest blood relations.

Petroleum, an isolated social group, exhibits bias toward its own values and aggression toward divergent behavior. For Petroleum, Robert embodies all otherness. He is frequently considered trouble and a bad omen because the town blames Robert for its decline, though he was only 14 when the accident that shut down the grain mill happened. “I still remember the day he quit school and skipped town. The playground erupted in cheers.” Robert is ostracized in the community; he is the black jacket in the throng of crimson jerseys. He is the “Clipped pace when everyone else saunters. Staring ahead while others socialize. Empty hands when others are working, carrying, purchasing.”

Robert’s return causes Mary to examine her life in Petroleum because it is only through another outsider, one that has been forcibly expelled, that she can comprehend the social dynamics of the town. “There’s something about his aloneness and the way people form an impression of him—this person’s not like us—that pulls at me. I know what it’s like when a town has made up its mind about you.” Mary comes to understand that your role as town freak or town troublemaker is a label that has been laid on top of one’s identity. “It’s as if they don’t even see Robert. He is a fiction they’ve invented, some terrible force that threatens their traditions, their livelihoods.” While Mary recognizes Petroleum’s treatment of Robert is wrong, she still struggles with the idea of belonging and the idea of being. “I want to fit in with the others, but with Robert, I can just be.”

Mary’s unique position as a secret outsider allows her to reflect on the nature of separation and come to the conclusion that Robert and the town are really not that different.

“Walk outside and we hear the same cattle, feel the same wind. How strange that we find ourselves at odds with people so similar to ourselves that someone from another town could not tell us apart. Don’t we all just want simple things from this life—a use for our talents and passions, a chance at love, an old wound healed, someone to hold after a hard day?”

“Certainly, we are capable of understanding each other. It’s as if we refuse our most natural instinct. We have forgotten what we have in common. We’ve forgotten when we walked to school together, when we picked up trash from the same storm. All of us have worked since we were children, on ranches, at the elevator or grocery store.”

The town’s treatment of Robert gives Mary the perspective to understand her life. “What I’m beginning to understand is lonely I’ve been, a loneliness I’d gotten used to, a way of living that—after this brief glimpse into the possibility of a different life—I can no longer bear.” She concludes that “‘Petroleum is not for everyone.’”


A.M. Larks writes fiction and nonfiction. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She contributes reviews and interviews to and is a reader for, The Coachella Review. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and is currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert’s low residency program. She lives in Northern California.