star cat that melted into a 3.5 by the end. review to come, if i ever get internet back at my place….
nope, still no internet, but it’s fun to come to the office on weekends!
this book starts out strong—it is 1897 in upstate new york. a woman trudges through the deep snow to her isolated home after a prolonged absence only to find her husband and four of her children murdered, their bodies scattered all over the house and yard, the killers long gone. after lying beside her husband’s body for a time, she realizes that she hasn’t seen the body of her twelve-year-old son caleb in the wreckage, and goes to find it, performing small domestic tasks along the way in a haze of shock and guilt.
in the kitchen, she is also shot.
she comes to, much later, on the kitchen table, with caleb standing over her, removing the pellets from her body.
caleb had been hiding in the barn when his family was murdered, and saw the killers and in what direction they left. together, mother and son set out on a quest for revenge.
in this first act, there are two major reveals, but even though they come early, i am not going to mention them because i think they make more of an impact if you are not expecting them. and they are juicy.
it’s a story of dark secrets and tangled family bonds. it’s a little bit True Grit as caleb sets out to get vengeance on the men who took his family from him, but without all the middlemen. he is by no means a ruthless killer; he has always felt closer to animals than to people and is terrified of the prospect of killing but he is also convinced that “an eye for an eye” is the appropriate course of action. and on this journey he will learn about himself, his family, and the greater world.
his mother elspeth is a trickier case. a midwife by trade, she desperately loves babies, but seems to lose interest in them once they become children. she leaves the farm for months at a time, working in far-flung towns, and has to keep a list of her own children’s names and ages in her bag so she doesn’t forget any of them when she is selecting gifts for her homecoming. she has always been distant and aloof towards her children and her scripture-quoting husband, and has a midwife’s practical, unemotional reaction to the bodies and blood of her family. this journey she takes with caleb will also be a journey through her own past, and the horrible decisions she made that have culminated in this situation. but it is also an opportunity to understand her son, to kindle the maternal impulses she has not been able to express until now.
they set off in the direction caleb saw the killers leave and eventually find themselves in a rough town full of rough men. elspeth is still wearing her husband’s clothes, which had been easier to maneuver into than a dress with her injuries, and dirty as she is from travel, with her hair cut short after an episode earlier in the journey, she is mistaken for a man; a ruse she chooses to sustain. this is a town with which she is very familiar, and she knows it is safer for her to remain unrecognized. she finds work with a team of men hauling ice from the lake, and caleb lands a job sweeping and cleaning up at a brothel, where he hopes to run into the killers.
during their time in the town, they make acquaintances, many of them dangerous, all the while circling each other awkwardly trying to establish a more traditional mother-and-son relationship. but they are not traditional people, and their shared trauma tempers their bond into something unusual, but no less powerful for it.
this novel works very well as a coming-of-age story. caleb is a winning and sympathetic character as he emerges into the world, having only known his farm, his animals, and his family before this. he is exposed to the basest elements of humanity, and he takes it all in unflinchingly while shaping his own personality around it and still managing to retain much of his innocence. his yearning for family and love can be heartbreaking in such a cruel world, but he has a resolve, an inner strength, that leads him on his path.
elspeth is also a great character study. a woman with secrets and sins, much bolder than her son but capable of tenderness and sacrifice despite her cold exterior. there is a lot to celebrate in these characters.
i’m just not crazy about the ending. View Spoiler »i’m not usually against an ambiguous ending—Infinite Jest is one of my all-time favorite novels, and you wanna talk unresolved…but while i think ambiguity works well in a certain kind of book, this isn’t one of them. with a vengeance story, you want vengeance, whether it be at the hands of your young protagonist, or if you want him to remain pure of soul, by an outside force: an accident, the law, some other, harder person. you want to see killers get theirs. you don’t want to see them playing in the snow like puppies while the time for action passes and the likelihood of danger gets closer. because we are never told if caleb has taken a gun with him upstairs. we know he threw the gun from him after the first shootout, but the final scene in the penultimate chapter is of him looking at the gun by the dead body. so if we don’t know if he has taken that gun with him upstairs, we don’t know if his failure to kill the other two men is a moral decision—a result of his having spoken to their mother, seen their growth charts and then seen them playing as children which has weakened his resolve, or if he is truly unable to kill them because of having shotgun shells and no shotgun. that’s an important distinction. because the ending seems to imply that caleb has given up and will be killed by these men once they see the carnage downstairs. and that is a bleak ending which undermines every triumph caleb has achieved—the mother with whom he has finally managed to connect is dead, and his vengeance is incomplete. so all of it was for nothing. which is an ending i am fine with as a reader—it’s a very merciless cormac mccarthy/thomas hardy view where the world cares nothing for you and nothing you do matters and everything dies horribly, but if that’s your ending—commit to it. show it in all its horror. don’t pull your punches by drawing the curtain over it. it makes for a kind of wimpy ending. « Hide Spoiler
and that’s why it’s a 3.5
stars cats instead of a 4.
but it is still a great book, particularly for a debut, and i am very interested in what he will do next.