Self-consciously melodramatic tale of a 17-year-old girl’s fateful summer of 1938 in a doomed Greenwich, Massachusetts.
Emily Dickinson is Sarianna Chase Renway’s favorite author, and, to emulate and honor Dickinson, the serious-minded Sarianna quits Mount Holyoke (where Dickinson also studied) after one year to become tutor to a minister’s son in the Swift River Valley. After one more year, the valley will be flooded by government decree to provide water for Boston, and the town of Greenwich will be gone. Hence, few residents are left to fill Reverend Treat’s church and provide companionship to his lovely young wife Una and 11-year-old son. Using allusions to such New England literary forebears as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary Rowlandson, Landis (Longing, 2000, etc.), evidently steeped in the Puritan tradition, gradually introduces a bizarre, incestuous ménage involving the Treats and Una’s childhood family, the Vears: Una grew up with handsome half-brother Ethan Vear and might have been pregnant with his child when her father/uncle Simeon sent her to live with the handsome God-wrestling Reverend Treat 11 years ago. Into this mystical muddle steps clear-eyed virgin Sarianna, who is charmed by Una’s stories of Ethan—or his spirit—and resolves to find him even though he’s reputed dead. In fact, when he does materialize, a kind of feral boy living in the woods with gruff elderly father Simeon, it’s unclear whether he really exists or just functions as a metaphorical foil for the mad graveyard gleanings of the living. With its archaic syntax and stilted vocabulary (“within the chaste clasp of my childhood bedroom”), the story hinges on the “taking” of Sarianna’s innocence: Will it be done by the irresistible reverend, for whom Sarianna doubles for a younger Una? The ethereal Ethan? Even young Jimmy Treat, emerging into manhood? In any case, Sarianna isn’t as interested in the act as in the act of reading: literary and biblical personages have a more solid presence here than Landis’s own.
A gothically tempestuous, not undelightful examination of the anxiety of influence.