The crimes of a benighted woman spark horrific blowback; in its wake, this wrenching first novel from the Massachusetts-based Scott tracks two lost souls in the New York hinterland of the late 19th century.
Elspeth Howell is a midwife returning home after a monthslong absence. She trudges through falling snow to their remote farmhouse only to find husband Jorah and four of their children shot dead. The sole survivor is 12-year-old Caleb, who had watched the three killers from the barn. It gets worse; Caleb shoots his mother by accident; his anguish is profound. Then the house burns down, the unintended consequence of Caleb’s funeral pyre. Elspeth survives. The carnage is linked to her own crimes of opportunity. She and Jorah, a Native American, had tried to conceive, but Elspeth was barren and became seized by the compulsion to steal babies. None of the children are hers. A deeply religious woman, she aches with the consciousness of her sins and yearns for divine punishment but is unable to stop. A tip steers Caleb and the recovering Elspeth, in pursuit of the killers, to Watersbridge, the gritty town beside Lake Erie from which she stole Caleb. With the revenge motif as a backbeat, the pair, haunted though they are, improvise new lives for themselves. Elspeth, disguised as a man, finds work hauling ice. The resourceful Caleb is hired as a handyman at a brothel. The owner, a smooth-as-silk villain, kills without compunction, and Caleb guesses correctly that clues here will help his search. He encounters two fearsomely angry men, both indirect victims of Elspeth’s thefts. Yet, for all the collateral damage she has caused, Elspeth has a core of decency sufficient to retain our sympathy. Caleb is spun around like a top through heartbreaking discoveries and narrow escapes, but any excess in the material is tempered by the calm restraint of Scott’s language.
Scott is both compassionate moralist and master storyteller in this outstanding debut.