Avery (A Curious Host, 2016, etc.) reissues a novella first published more than a decade ago: a story about an intriguing stranger who arrives in a small Midwestern prairie town during the 19th century.
On a hot July evening, a tired Theodore Grant rides his two-mule–driven wagon into the dusty town of Cottonwood. He has traveled from Massachusetts, bringing with him 60 jars. His intent is to pick up a letter that should be waiting for him, drop off his mysterious jars, and then head to Santa Fe. The town, in which “not much ever happened that wasn’t planned,” is aflutter with news of his appearance. But beneath Grant’s well-mannered exterior, he carries a dark secret, and over the next 36 hours, he will experience both hope and despair before discovering his path to redemption. Whether through serendipity or providence, he meets Mrs. Quinn, owner of the general store, which also conveniently serves as the post office. During a late-night conversation, Grant shares with her the emotional and physical baggage that has accompanied him on his long journey from the frigid shores of the Northeast coast. In the process, he not only frees himself, but also provides Mrs. Quinn with a missing piece of her own family history. Avery’s tightly crafted chapters move the storyline quickly, but she lingers in them just long enough to efficiently capture small, ordinary details that vividly set the stage for each scene: “The uneven planks” of the wooden sidewalk “began to make walking difficult, so he stepped off to the adjacent mud baked-street and continued.” Describing a rush of gossipy excitement, she writes: “Questions flew about like sparks in a dry prairie fire.” There is no time for character development, yet with few words Avery successfully communicates the essential qualities of the primary players, from Mrs. Maggie Richmond’s pride in her hotel and the cuisine she serves to Grant’s loneliness. Referring to his two mules, he says simply: “They’re the only family I’ve got.”
A satisfying and unexpectedly soulful pioneer tale.