Another keening, moving novel steeped in American history and the rhythms of country life from Lent (After You’ve Gone, 2009, etc.).
It opens with a scene of shocking violence, as Malcolm Hopeton confronts Amos Wheeler, the hired hand who plundered his farm and stole his wife, Bethany, while he was fighting in the Civil War. Hopeton kills Wheeler intentionally and Bethany by accident, injuring his young helper, Harlan Davis, who tries to stop him. Hopeton is arrested, and Harlan is taken to recuperate at the farm where his sister Becca keeps house for widower August Swartout. The complexities of relationships past and present in this small, tightly knit western New York community unfold as various powerful men maneuver to gain clemency for Hopeton as the justified avenger of marital betrayal. Though it becomes clear that Wheeler was evil to the bone and had physically abused Bethany, her own father stigmatizes her as a woman “raised in the grace of the Lord [who] turned away.” The truth is a lot more complicated, we see, as Hopeton’s memories of his early encounters with both Bethany and Wheeler suggest many unsavory secrets hidden among followers of the charismatic religion founded by the Public Friend (a female divine clearly modeled on the Shakers’ Mother Ann Lee). Questions of faith, justice and forgiveness are palpable and pressing for Hopeton, August and Harlan, the trio whose consciousnesses dominate the narrative, although Lent gently sketches Bethany, Becca, and Wheeler’s discarded lover, Alice Ann, from a further distance as women restless with their allotted roles. His prose is as magnificent as ever, capturing the light in a summer sky or the pain in a bereaved heart with equal clarity and beauty. The novel isn’t so much resolved as halted by a closing scene that makes it clear none of these poignantly rendered characters has reached the ends of their journeys.
More fine work from a writer who stirs both the head and the heart with powerful grace.