A father’s death leaves a daughter seeking answers and a return to normal life in this impressive debut novel.
It’s mid-July 1943, amid a drought in Boaz, Wisconsin, when 15-year-old Cielle Jacobson finds her father hanging from a beam in their barn. Her mother and a neighbor cover up the suicide as an accident, adding to the questions shadowing Cielle, whose closeness to her father is revealed in brief, tender flashbacks. As the narrative moves through several weeks and vignettes, Kenny (Love Is No Small Thing: Stories, 2017) anchors her third-person narrative to Cielle’s point of view. She is a gifted violinist, a loving sister, and a thoughtful teen who ponders her place in a small town and in the universe and feels her childhood “leaving little by little every day.” The author offers little drama: a tornado that razes the barn; a horse-riding accident; a suicide note left unread for many pages; a subplot involving a wily Cielle and the suicide’s effect on the legal disposition of the Jacobsons’ land. Even the war is mostly an aside—Mrs. Jacobson alludes to “rationed butter and sugar”—until Cielle’s sister learns that her boyfriend has joined up and a neighbor’s injured son comes home in a wheelchair. But from the life-altering suicide to her first kiss, everything bears some significance for Cielle’s progress toward adulthood. She calls to mind Frankie of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, who begins to think about the world during “a long queer season” one spring. And like Bunny in the double-edged opening of William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, Cielle doesn’t “waken all at once.” Still, she begins to blossom despite the drought.
Kenny’s thoughtful, finely crafted work is an eloquent reminder that the breadth of a world matters less than the depth of a character.