Excerpt from A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Doubter's Almanac

by Ethan Canin

A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin X
A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2016, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2016, 592 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Even at a young age, Milo understood that he was in large part a replica of his father, this solitary, middle-aged man who shared their house with them but who appeared to will himself away from anyone even when he was at home. When Mr. Andret wasn't grading schoolwork, he was walking unceasingly through his dominion, mending all sorts of breakage and deterioration that were apparent only to him.

Like his father, Milo himself learned at a young age to carve wood. Very fine objects, in fact. But also like his father, he never showed anyone what he'd made. He whittled ornate whistles that he rarely blew, detailed animal figurines that he abandoned in the undergrowth, and intricate talismans of celestial design, which he hid in the dimples of maple burls or inside the crevices of the twisted roots that emerged from the forest's peat like tangles of surfacing snakes. For his finer work, he used a magnifying glass.

One day while whittling a whistle from a tiny piece of tamarack, he turned the magnifying glass a certain way and watched a scalding yellow dot lift a curl of smoke out of the bark.

Did others know about this?

He turned the lens the same way again and held it still. When the wood began to smolder, he wet his thumb and rubbed out the ember. Then he whittled away the imperfection and carefully burned a tiny star into the spot. After that, he began burning this tiny star into everything he made, as a signature. It wasn't that he felt any particular pride in his work but rather that the miniaturized sun itself, inverted and shimmering as he guided its bead across the grain, seemed like a force that had been revealed only to him. The smoke lifted off and vanished: something from nothing. Magic. He was aware that other similar powers might exist in the universe. That morning, when he left the newly carved whistle in a bed of ferns, he felt that he was performing an act of humility before some unnameable entity.


One night, during the summer of his thirteenth year, a windstorm swept down the straits, and he was awakened in bed by a crashing from the woods. The next morning, at the edge of a ravine, he came across a stump that was as wide across as a tractor tire. It was a beech tree, broken off at the level of his waist. The rest of the tree lay several yards away, neatly divided into three, as though the immense thing had been scissored up, carried off to a safe distance, and placed down for his inspection. He took a seat on the rim of the broken base. For the whole morning he sat there, contemplating what had presented itself to him, until an inspiration arrived.

He spent the rest of the summer executing his idea.

Over the long days of July, then the shorter ones of August and September, he hardly came in from the forest. He found that he could work for ten or even twelve hours at a stretch, so that by the time fall arrived, he realized that he'd produced something miraculous. It was a single, continuous loop of wooden chain, more than twenty-five feet long, carved out of the top of the stump and resting above it on hundreds of tiny spurs that had been whittled down to the thickness of finishing nails. The chain coiled in a tightening spiral toward the center of the tree, then doubled back and coiled out again toward the rim, returning to the spot where the last link closed around the first. He'd carved a twist into each of the links, which produced a startling effect: if he ran his finger all the way around the surface of any single one of them, the finger would circle not once but twice around the twisted link before returning to its starting point. This strange fact felt like another secret to him.

Finally, one peat-scented evening in the warm October of 1957, he understood that he had finished. He had needed his creation to be perfect, and now it was. One last time, he ran his hands over the length of it, feeling for flaws. Then he severed the spurs and meticulously sanded away their nubs. At last, he lifted the whole thing into his arms, doubling it around and around his shoulders until the slack was gone. It felt like a living thing now, yet it was as smooth and heavy as stone. When he breathed, it tightened around his chest. Standing in the quietly darkening woods, as the lights began to come on in the distant house, he felt like an escape artist, preparing a feat.

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From the book A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin. Copyright © 2016 by Ethan Canin. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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