Susan Richards Shreve’s new novel, More News Tomorrow, began innocuously enough with a photo from a summer camp that Shreve’s Danish grandfather owned in northern Wisconsin. “One day I found this picture of him and his wife on this lake in Wisconsin. It was completely bucolic,” Shreve recalls. “Then I thought, What if he killed her?”
This question eventually became the conceit forShreve’s deeply imagined and superbly chilling novel, which follows an anthropologist still contending with her tumultuous past, 66 years after her mother’s murder and her immigrant father’s imprisonment for the crime. When Georgianna Grove, mother of three and grandmother to three more, receives a letter on her 70th birthday from someone who may know the truth behind what really happened on the 1941 canoe trip that left her orphaned, she embarks on a pilgrimage from DC back to the Wisconsin camp she once called home, with her grown children and their children in tow.
Georgie’s hope is to finally get the information she’s needed to exonerate her father, William, of the murder she’s certain he never committed. But the journey there is, literally and figuratively, a stormy one. Someone goes missing, a canoe capsizes in murky waters, and creepy woods take on a whole new meaning.
Oscillating between 2008, when America’s future gleamed with hope at the prospect of its first black president, and 1941, during the epidemics of racism and anti-Semitism in America, Shreve traces the origins of a family plagued by insurmountable loss and a troubled past that seems to lurk around every corner...or tree. Her evocation of 1941 feels eerily alive, in part, because it was informed by actual documents from her father’s time as head of radio censorship during the war, when “the hatred of Jews was intense.”
Through vivid flashbacks leading up to Georgie’s mother’s death, Shreve parses out details that complicate the narrative of William’s innocence. A Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, William lied about his faith only to land a spiteful wife who incessantly disparaged him because of it (and to gain admittance to a camp whose entrance bore the sign “NO DOGS. NO JEWS”). He also hired a woman and her son to work at the camp that summer in 1941, despite both of them being black. It later comes to light that this woman had a long history with Georgie’s father, but because she was black, her account was never told.
As the story unfurls, Georgie’s journey becomes less about her father’s vindication and more about understanding what it is to be “an outsider in a culture and to have who you are hated,” Shreve says. Maybe the answer to the mystery behind her mother’s murder has nothing to do with blame and more to do with the far-reaching damage that intolerance and discrimination inflicted on her family. Of course, that’s up to the reader to decide.
“I have always identified with injustice and the outsider,” Shreve says, noting wistfully that her book “was written with a kind of optimism” at a time when “there was this great sense of social justice” with Obama as our president. She didn’t mean to write a timely book. “It just happened,” she says. “The world that exists right now is a world of much more fear than I grew up in.”
On her way to the site where her mother was murdered, Georgie wonders if “I’m disturbing a universe that was perfectly happy in the present before I came along to dig up the past.” What she comes to find is that perfect surfaces aren’t entirely what they seem and the past is always present, even when we think we’ve escaped it.
Stephanie Buschardt is a writer living in Brooklyn.