In Sundt’s (My Helsingfors: Andreas Larsson Bengstrom, 2014) Depression-era story, an adult orphan takes care of a younger one, and together, they take a trip to delve into their pasts.
Eleven-year-old John Culbertson’s father dies of a heart attack on their bleak farm in southern Illinois. Traumatized, the boy, who’s known as “Cully,” blindly and aimlessly hits the road. Along the way, Gunnar Anderson, known to all simply as “Doc,” stops his car and convinces the lad to come with him. Before long, they’re acting like father and son. Doc is a lonely widower, and Cully fills a void in his heart. Thirty years ago, when he was a child, Doc was sent west on an “orphan train”—part of a movement that aimed to relocate orphans in Eastern cities to Midwestern foster homes—and by hard work, he eventually got a college education and became a veterinarian. He has virtually no memory of his life before he was put on the train. Cully’s mother, Anna, left her husband and son and returned to her Connecticut hometown years ago. Now, she writes a long letter to both of them—not knowing that her husband’s dead. It contains a mysterious reference to the long-ago disappearance of her youngest brother, Augustus Jared. Doc sees Cully’s photo of Anna and begins to fall in love with her—but for various reasons, he soon begins to suspect that he might, in fact, be her long-lost brother. Fatefully, he says to Cully, “I think we need to go find your mother.” They finally track her down, and, of course, the boy is overjoyed at the reunion; meanwhile, Doc wrestles with his feelings while trying to discover the truth about his past.
Sundt is a very impressive writer, and he doesn’t miss a step as he evokes the story’s time and place with vivid descriptions. Doc, in particular, is a wonderful creation who’s worth the price of admission all by himself; his care for Cully is simple and strong, and he also shows deep sensitivity. The book is structured as the two complementary diaries of Doc and Cully, and as a result, the text approaches metafiction at times, as when Doc writes, “There are things that happen beyond all intention and planning….If it were in a book, the reader would scoff at it.” Often, Doc’s and Cully’s entries will observe the same turn of events from their very different perspectives—Doc with maturity, and Cully with precocity. The narrative is bookended by commentaries by Augustus Strong II, Cully’s son, writing in the present day. It’s revealed that Augustus is a veterinarian—just like Doc was. The final mystery involves the Strong family graveyard, but Sundt has Augustus Strong II provide the envoi: “Some mysteries are not meant to be solved.” That said, the climax turns out to be a real shocker, leaving readers to ponder a lack of resolution.
A cleverly plotted and deeply moving work that will likely have readers recommending it to their friends.