“Elspeth Howell was a sinner.” That is the first sentence of the widely praised inaugural novel, The Kept, by James Scott ’99. And that sentence is at the heart of Scott’s story about a wife and mother of five, who has a deep, personal flaw that has not only shaped her life but also caused havoc from which she and one of her children may never recover. Her flaw and the sins it led to are slowly revealed as the story unfolds. At once a mystery and a revenge tale set in 1897 in upstate New York during a grueling, seemingly endless winter, The Kept ensnares the reader and does not let go.
The novel begins as Elspeth, a midwife who has been away working, returns to her remote, isolated homestead. Nearing the house, she notices there is no smoke coming from the chimney, which tells her instantly that something is wrong. On the porch, she finds the slaughtered body of her youngest daughter, and inside, three other children shot dead, and her husband lifeless in bed.
All have been murdered—except 12-year-old Caleb, who hid during the massacre. He and his mother must survive several severe hurdles before they can leave their home and head out across fields of deep snow to seek help—and the killers. Caleb wants revenge. Elspeth fears that her sins are being repaid.
Mother and son trek to a lakefront town, where Elspeth’s past begins to resurface. She rents a room and seeks a job. Caleb, with his sights on finding his family’s murderers, places himself in the one place he thinks murderers would most likely be found, a brothel. Thrust quickly into manhood in these grim surroundings, Caleb begins to unravel the truth about his family and his mother. The town is populated by rough, brutal people, living hard lives—everyone existing on survival’s razor edge. And the long, brooding winter, with snow and cold that never let up, accentuates the difficulties.
Scott raises complex questions about what constitutes a familty, or heroism, or higher purpose, or self-determination. Elspeth’s sins drive her. Her family was built around them. Could she have lived any other way? Did she have control over how her life turned out? With masterful use of flashbacks, Scott paints an intricate portrait of a complex family with secrets layered within secrets.
The Kept is a wonderfully written, mysteriously revealed narrative, and while the lives it describes are difficult and painful, they are also admirable for their gritty determination.
A Boy’s Life
Review of The Other World by Richard Hawley ’67
It’s not an easy task for an adult to tell a story through the eyes of a child. Capturing a boy’s thoughts and feelings as he experiences his interactions with his parents, other children, animals and nature, or life situations can be a challenge for the older writer, who often has lost the sense of wonder, curiosity, hope, and vision of “the other world” that a child possesses.
Yet Richard Hawley ’67 successfully unfolds the story of Jonathan Force in The Other World, convincingly developing Jonathan’s voice from his first memory of Christmas at age one to the day he leaves for college. The time frame moves from the end of World War II through the 1950s, when the experiences and adventures a boy can have give him a chance to explore the secret worlds of childhood, attics and basements and tunnels under the school, always empowered by imagination and a lively spirit. Yet at the same time, he faces the realities of a father who cracks him in the head for childhood mistakes, the limitations of realizing dreams as he tries to climb up the outside of a house, the anguish of junior high when the main thing he does is try not to feel bad. As Jonathan says, “There are times when your life gets small and you can hardly remember the other world.”
Throughout each of the stories that unfold in the novel, Jonathan captivates the reader with his very genuine reflections on growing up and his detailed observations of society and his part in it. Hawley lets us accompany this engaging boy on his journey from innocence to the threshold of manhood and it’s well worth the read.