Set in rural New York state at the turn of the twentieth century, superb new talent James Scott makes his literary debut with The Kept - a propulsive novel reminiscent of the works of Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, in which a mother and her young son embark on a quest to avenge a terrible and violent tragedy that has shattered their secluded family.
In the winter of 1897, a trio of killers descends upon an isolated farm in upstate New York. Midwife Elspeth Howell returns home to the carnage: her husband, and four of her children, murdered. Before she can discover her remaining son Caleb, alive and hiding in the kitchen pantry, another shot rings out over the snow-covered valley. Twelve-year-old Caleb must tend to his mother until she recovers enough for them to take to the frozen wilderness in search of the men responsible.
A scorching portrait of a merciless world - of guilt and lost innocence, atonement and retribution, resilience and sacrifice, pregnant obsession and primal adolescence - The Kept introduces an old-beyond-his-years protagonist as indelible and heartbreaking as Mattie Ross of True Grit or Jimmy Blevins of All the Pretty Horses, as well as a shape-shifting mother as enigmatic and mysterious as a character drawn by Russell Banks or Marilynne Robinson.
Elspeth Howell was a sinner. The thought passed over her like a shadow as she washed her face or caught her reflection in a window or disembarked from a train after months away from home. Whenever she saw a church or her husband quoted verse or she touched the simple cross around her neck while she fetched her bags, her transgressions lay in the hollow of her chest, hard and heavy as stone. The multitude of her sinsanger, covetousness, thieverycreated a tension in her body, and all that could ease the pressure was movement, finding something to occupy her wicked hands and her tempted mind, and so she churned her legs against snow that piled in drifts to her waist.
While the miles passed, the sky over Elspeth became nothing but a gray smudge and weighty clouds released their burden. She loosened the scarf from her face and the cold invaded her lungs. As soon as a drop of sweat slid out from under a glove or down a curl of hair, it turned to ice that flickered...
Throughout The Kept, there are several direct and implied references to the Bible, religiosity, God and the Devil, evil and goodness, retribution, atonement and redemption. With Caleb, especially, James Scott captures his young character's kind yet profoundly damaged soul. A particularly moving section depicts the boy's love—and anguish—for his horses and other farm animals he knows he must leave in order to find the murderers. The book tends to be overly ambitious, however, with its inclusion of so many colossal subjects and themes that sometimes compete for attention in a work chock-full of plots and characters.
(Reviewed by Suzanne Reeder).
Full Review (1218 words).
In The Kept, Elspeth works in the ice trade, which began in the early 1800s. Your chilled water, iced tea and sodas (or pop, if you prefer) owe a debt of thanks to this frozen-water trade, which involved the harvesting, transport and sale of natural ice. The industry had broad ramifications affecting the preservation of food, beverages, and the treatment of illness, now considered necessities for the way most of us live today.
In 1805 two young Bostonians named Frederic and William Tudor decided to embark upon a bold business venture: cutting Massachusetts ice and shipping the product more than 1,000 miles away to sell in tropical climates. (Until his death in 1864, at age 80, Frederic denied the reported story that his older brother, ...
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