In this debut historical novel, an unexpected guest with news of her husband’s death forces a woman to finally reveal to her daughter the circumstances of her father’s leaving them to become a traveling preacher.
Established by freed slaves in the wake of the Civil War, Capernum, Maryland, is the very picture of small-town America, its folksy population dwindling as its young people seek opportunities beyond it. Few from the outside ever visit the place anymore. Such is the oddity of the man who appears on the doorstep of Miriam Crane with news of the shooting death of her long-absentee husband, Saul. With it, the unspoken peace of the Crane household is broken, and Miriam’s daughter, Ruth Benning, demands the truth about why her father left years before. The story her mother relays recalls a traveling parish drawn to Capernum’s origins and its nomadic preacher, Isaac, whose charismatic sermons inflame the passions of many townsfolk, especially Saul. When a jealous, spurned follower lashes out against the preacher and kills him, Saul feels called on to serve in Isaac’s place even if that means leaving his wife and child behind. But while her husband’s exodus causes her great pain, even more disturbing are the questions it leaves Miriam with, about whether she has led the life she has wanted or the one she was meant to and if it was her, not her husband, who should have taken up Isaac’s cause. Hall’s novel captures the timelessness of its rural setting, creating in Capernum a small community struggling against its own stagnation, where everything private is public; religion is ubiquitous in everyday life; and politeness and hospitality are the default even in times of doubt and fear. The last is particularly significant, as much is left unsaid in the book’s excellently crafted dialogue for just those reasons. Around those lies of omission, the story thrives on illustrating little moments that speak volumes, from an infant’s grip on its mother’s finger and a sidelong glance from a wife to an unnoticing husband to a daughter’s refusal to turn on a light in the presence of her sick mother. These instants are often both loving and cruel, obvious to the reader, and even more heartbreaking for going unseen by the characters.
A vivid and authentic tale about family secrets.