Set in the near future, Sugar Mountain is a saga about the struggles of an extended family to survive a lethal avian flu pandemic. Within days, the world changes radically and forever as the infrastructure of civilized life crumbles. In short order, there exists no power grid, no internet, no media, no medical facilities, dwindling supplies of food, and, for most people, very little hope. A committed pacifist, Cyrus Arkwright has been preparing for several years to make Sugar Mountain, his ancestral farm located in western Massachusetts, into a self-sustaining haven for his extended family. He is, in the modern parlance, a “prepper,” one of the growing number of Americans (that range from the militant right to the communal left) who are getting ready for some kind of apocalypse.
As the family in-gathers during that calamitous May when a deadly form of H5N1 begins its destruction of the human world, the Arkwrights are not only besieged by pleas from friends and loved ones, but realize they are vulnerable to the violence and lawlessness that is spreading with a contagion of its own. Having laid in supplies, devised basic systems, and established a self-sustaining farm, Cyrus, his wife Grace, and their three sons and their families become prime targets in a ravening world. As national, state, and local governments shrivel to all but non-existence, it falls to son Jack, an Army Ranger veteran, to organize the defense of Sugar Mountain. It is Jack, over the protests of his father, who earlier acquired a store of weapons and now teaches the others how to use them.
The principal threat to the refuge arises in the form of the McFerall brothers. Men in their late fifties, Duncan and Bruce live with their families in a hollow several miles from the Arkwright refuge. For more than a century there has been a festering feud between the two families as to the ownership of Sugar Mountain. Empowered by the possession of stolen antiviral medicines and as a member of the National Guard, Duncan is in a position to command weapons and men. In the guise of suppressing “terrorism,” the brothers launch a systematic campaign of attacking and taking farmsteads in which they place their retainers. Sugar Mountain is high on this list. In its situations, in its characters, Sugar Mountain explores the human species in extremis—that is, in those conditions that existed through most of our evolutionary history.
I read Sugar Mountain on my Kindle and couldn’t put it down. It was utterly gripping and frightening…. —Lloyd Schwartz; I just finished it…a riveting read…better than many “best sellers.” —Bob Viarengo; I stayed up until 2:00 am to finish the book last night, I couldn’t put it down. I loved every “page.” It was fantastic. And I loved Allegra’s journal….Great book. I want to see the movie. —Anna Doyle; Just wanted to say that I read four chapters last night and am thoroughly hooked. The characters and their plight stayed with me today. Can’t wait to continue! —Jennie Summerall; But what a page-turner this is! Beautifully written literature….The suspense in unstoppable; the multitude of characters flawlessly orchestrated; there’s a New England aura to it, and Allegra’s diary is a wonderfully pinned-down example. I love every minute of it and I am only at page 216. —Stratis Haviaris; Unfortunately, this absolutely could happen either in the way you write about or as a natural mutation in the virus. —Stephen J. Gluckman, Professor of Medicine, Perelman Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania; Medical Director, Penn Global Medicine
Alfred Alcorn is the author of ten novels, including Time is the Fire (PBS), The Pull of the Earth, Natural Selection, and Murder in the Museum of Man. Alfred Alcorn, born Alfred John Denny, grew up in the bombed-out docklands of Merseyside, in the green fields of Ireland, and on a hardscrabble dairy farm in New England. He attended Harvard, got married, stayed married, worked as a journalist, travel coordinator, and wildlife guide. The former director of travel at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, he continues to guide groups in East Africa, India, and elsewhere. He lives in Colrain, Massachusetts, with his wife Sally Remick Alcorn.
Books by Alfred Alcorn and Complete Book Reviews: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/authorpage/alfred-alcorn.html
At first the news comes obliquely, unvoiced, a flicker of words across the bottom of the screen: World Health Organization raises concern about reports of deaths from avian flu outbreak in Xinjiang Province. Beijing officials deny access to WHO inspectors, calling the outbreak “a local matter.”
Moments later, the item is upgraded to a breaking news bulletin. The newscaster, an attractive young woman with practiced authority in her voice, tells her morning audience: “This just in. The World Health Organization, the WHO, has designated an avian flu outbreak in a remote province of western China to be at Phase 5 of the pandemic alert level. A Phase 5 designation involves human to human transmission, effecting larger clusters, or communities, of people. At this point, there is a much higher risk of a pandemic although not a certainty. We’ll keep you updated as more information becomes available.”
In his farmhouse in the hill country of western Massachusetts, Cyrus Arkwright watches the news about the outbreak and feels his own alarm level ratchet up. It is a foreboding mingled with a sense of vindication he resists. Will this be it? There have been several flare-ups of lethal flu in China in the recent past. But in those instances, the Chinese government cooperated with international health agencies as to the specifics of the pathogen involved. Now it is clamping down. Why? What are they hiding?
In his early seventies, of medium height and slightly stooped, Cyrus has a full head of white hair and an Amish beard of darker hue, a suitable frame for his slow-smiling patrician face. He notes down the name of the province. He muses. Phase 5.
He tuned in CNN this warm spring morning to follow a forest fire flaring along the Grand Canyon. That footage showed a blackened expanse east of Canyon Village where junipers, pinyon and ponderosa pines once mantled the South Rim. Also news about floods along the Mississippi for the second year in a row. Signs, he thinks, that global warming is looming faster than predicted.
Or is Grace, his wife of forty years right? Is he becoming a connoisseur of disaster? Or what their daughter-in-law Allegra smilingly called a “Malthusiast,” a literary allusion no doubt. Not that Grace hesitated to join him in transforming Sugar Mountain, the old family farm, from a weekend retreat into a self-sustaining refuge for their extended family. Should the need arise.
It took some doing. It began five years before when he retired, in stages, from his architectural practice in Cambridge. They sold their roomy house on Francis Avenue with more than a few regrets and moved back. It was as much a move in time as geographically, at least where Cyrus was concerned. For he grew up on this farm in the northern Berkshires named for its grove of sugar maples where in early spring the sap rises with its sweet bounty. He knows like a farmer the three hundred or so acres, some of it good for pasture and hay, a lot of it ledgy, rising forest that extends nearly to the Vermont border.
His interest in disasters is more than academic. Cyrus is a prepper, a homesteader, a survivalist. Along with millions of others in America and overseas, he calculates the probability of catastrophe as too high to be ignored. A general awareness of possibilities came into sharp focus in 2009 when a bird flu scare made the Centers for Disease Control urge people to take precautions. That blew over, but left Cyrus wondering when avian influenza or some other highly mutagenic virus would turn into a mass killer.
Cover design by Lauren Grosskopf, Front Cover painting by Katherine Remick