Wright’s latest Vermont idyll (Stolen Honey, 2002, etc.) plumbs every dairy farmer’s worst nightmare.
Life is so unfair. When her lover, Colm Hanna, enlisted a distant cousin, Darren O’Neill, to help Ruth Willmarth work her farm in her hired-hand’s absence, Ruth had no idea that Darren would bring along his traveling family of Irish gypsies: his wife Maggie, her cousin Nola and Nola’s boyfriend Ritchie, who’s Darren’s own cousin. And Ruth never could have imagined that Nola, whom Ritchie’s just removed from a Canadian hospital, would still be sick with something that could well be Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human version of the dread mad cow disease. Clearly, Ruth needs to send the whole family packing. But before she can, Nola disappears and Ritchie is strangled to death. The obvious suspect is Nola, who hovers tantalizingly just out of reach, wandering from farm to neighboring farm. Like Calamity Jane, Nola endangers everyone she touches, from Lippitt Morgan horse breeder Franny Gates, whose beloved mare Ophelia has also gone missing, to hapless James Perlman, who just wants to put his past mistakes behind him and raise some uninfected sheep. There’ll be suitably villainous supporting roles for Ruth’s born-again ex-sister-in-law, Darren’s uncle Tormey Leary and the United States Department of Agriculture.
The mystery of Ritchie’s death manages to be both tangled and predictable, but the masterfully evoked terror of mad cow makes Ruth’s fifth her most sharply focused yet.