Locus Amoenus by Victoria N. Alexander centers upon the bucolic county seat of Amenia in upstate New York where Gertrude and her son Hamlet make their home after the horror of 9/11 deprived them of husband and father respectively. Seeking a new start in the rural quiet, Gertrude purchases a sheep farm where they intend to live a sustainable lifestyle butchering their own livestock, growing vegetables, and eschewing the material trappings and celebrity-devotion of the modern world. The Webutuck school district, where Hamlet attends classes, greet Gertrude’s healthy food campaign with suspicion and distrust; populated by overweight teachers overseeing equally rotund students, they are all fed on processed, pre-packaged, warehouse-shipped food portions that fast-track the next generation to dull-eyed diabetes. Gertrude’s persistence leads, eventually, to Hamlet’s expulsion who happily retreats to the fields and hills in company with the lissome Ophelia. Home schooled by the indefatigable Gertrude, Hamlet is content; at least until the arrival of the complacent bureaucrat Claudius who, in between digestive upsets, woos and wins the widowed cottage ‘queen’. Disenchanted with the change of circumstance and unable to overcome his disdainful contempt for his new step-father, Hamlet retreats brooding to his tree-house. In the intervening years he attends university, returning to find Ophelia transformed into a plump Goth with a penchant for purple makeup. Hamlet also becomes reacquainted with Horatio (science teacher turned conspiracy theorist) who shocks the young man with secret papers and private reports that implicate Claudius, as well as government agencies, in a horrifying cover-up. The two embark upon a dangerous enterprise in a desperate attempt to uncover the truth. Exposed and denounced by the vengeful Carlyle Hogg (former Webutuck ‘Wellness Committee’ head, now Homeland Security) Hamlet becomes entangled in a mire of death, tragic suicide and orchestrated murder.
Alexander’s work is a searing examination of small town America where obesity reigns, medication is oft prescribed to address all manner of non-conformist ills, and industrial agriculture and federal food subsidies conspire to the detriment of youthful health and wellbeing. Framed within Shakespearean parameters, this story is a modern revelation of all that is rotten in the United States of America (as realized by the young Hamlet) and the mechanisms by which it might be mended. Locus Amoenus is also an elegant story of love and loss, fools and villains, and like the Shakespearean counterpart, of murder, mayhem and madness. This profoundly thoughtful novel exposes, with a clear and dry wit, the issues of our time. Alexander presents a subtle interplay of hope and despair – hope of where we can be and what we are capable of, alongside the seemingly indomitable forces that render us obese and ignorant – forces, however, that are born of individual choice. The desire for change (as powerful as that can be) must come from within each of us. Locus Amoenus (from the Latin meaning ‘pleasant place’) depicts not just the scenic tranquility of country living in small town America, it is all places and all towns and the rotting canker beneath the surface plagues us all.
Verdict: A witty novella that unflinchingly examines the dark roots of industrial agriculture, pharmaceutical conglomerates, and standardized curriculum. A brilliant modern parallel to Shakespeare’s timeless work.