James Scott’s debut novel, The Kept, is an anguished tale about a mother and son’s journey to discover their family’s murderers. Set in the winter in the mid-19th-century New York countryside, the story contemplates family loyalty and the ways in which our deepest desires can lead us astray. Scott’s poetical language and complex characters create a complicated novel resonant of works by Cormac McCarthy. Scott will speak at 2 p.m. Saturday at A Cappella Books.
The plot begins with Elspeth Howell’s miles-long march through the snow to return to her family’s farm. Her heart begins to sink when she realizes that the normal markers of life at the homestead — smoke from the chimney, raucous sounds of children playing — are not apparent. Elspeth and her husband, Jorah, have chosen to place themselves far from neighbors. When Elspeth finds her husband and children shot dead, there is no one to help her. Surprisingly, though, not all were killed; her youngest son, Caleb, escapes the killers by hiding in the hayloft.
Caleb and Elspeth come together to pursue the criminals, but they are almost strangers. Elspeth’s work as a midwife kept her away for months at a time. When she was home, she took little interest in her children, especially Caleb, who preferred to live alone in the barn. She has secrets, too, ones that mark her as a sinner and cause her to shudder with guilt. Caleb knows little of Elspeth’s faults, but his mind revolves around shadowed scenes he witnessed one night when his father met trespassers on the farm. Overwhelmed by their private thoughts but filled with silence, Caleb and Elspeth make the long walk to Watersbridge, a town that may contain the answers to their deepest questions.
After following the directions of a farmer who may have seen the killers going to Watersbridge, mother and son reach the small town on the shore of Lake Erie. Elspeth takes work at an ice factory, removing ice from Lake Erie, and Caleb sweeps the floors at the local whorehouse. Elspeth needs money and Caleb believes the killers might pass through a place like the Elm Inn. They work assiduously and keep their ears open for information about the murderers. What neither expects to happen, however, is the evolution of their own relationship. Caleb’s rediscovery of his mother and his eventual trust in her is sweet, but it is Elspeth’s transformation from a mother in name to a mother in actuality that is the most compelling. In fact, Elspeth’s realization of her love for the boy, a feeling more maternal and bonded than any she thought she had for him when he was a baby, is the ray of hope in the novel. Surrounded by dreary winter, hardship, death and the pain of great loss, Elspeth’s recognition of the ways she must fight to be a true mother for Caleb is touching.
Woven throughout these moving scenes is Scott’s artful writing, and his ability to shape language to convey a precise image or feeling. If the characters are overwhelmed by the bleakness of their lives, the evocation of their situations is not. Scott describes tree limbs that are “stitched into a quilt of blue,” and the morning sun that “recalling fire, [scalds] the sky with bright oranges and reds.” Scott grounds his story in the physical experience, paying attention to the temperature, the texture of the freezing snow or the pain of a gunshot wound. These observations are not just limited to the landscape. His eye for detail extends to his characters, too. Elspeth’s “transgressions lay in the hollow of her chest, hard and heavy, like stone.” At the end of the novel, when she confesses her sins, the relief she feels “straightens her back and [makes] her breathe easier as sure as removing the bandages from her chest.” Scott’s exact measurement of human feeling and physical experience make the characters and scenes thrum with vibrant life.
Though grim, the novel is not pessimistic. Many of the characters commit sins to better themselves, but they are not bereft of an ability to show kindness toward others. The little happiness to be found in the story comes in concluding scenes when many of the characters put aside their selfish desires to help others. The Kept is an engrossing and darkly beautiful tale of love and loss.