BookBrowse Reviews The Kept by James Scott

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Kept

by James Scott

The Kept by James Scott X
The Kept by James Scott
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 368 pages
    Jan 2015, 368 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Suzanne Reeder

Buy This Book

About this Book



Elements of Southern Gothic writing infuse this impressive – if convoluted – debut set in 19th century New York.

At the beginning of his debut novel The Kept, one of James Scott's main characters, Elspeth Howell, is described as a sinner whose multitude of transgressions involve anger, covetousness and thievery. The events leading up to her sinfulness, along with the consequences of her evil deeds, are the driving forces behind this suspenseful tale.

Scott's sharp eye for detail and strong sense of place are amply employed in this work, which shrewdly borrows from many Southern Gothic traditions - particularly bleak settings; violence; and eccentric, flawed characters. New York, near the end of the 19th century, is the potently grim setting. With this eastern locale, Scott infuses the genre with finely crafted sentences and scenes that by turns are disturbing, poignant, creepy, and sometimes delightfully bizarre.

As the book opens, Elspeth has been away from her family and farmhouse for four months, working as a midwife. She arrives home on a cold winter day and discovers that her husband and four of her five children have been brutally murdered. While Elspeth, shocked and sickened with grief, straightens the dress of one of her dead daughters, Caleb shoots his mother through the pantry door, believing with his blinded view that at least one of the three killers has returned, days after committing the carnage.

When Caleb realizes his mistake, he is horrified and overcome with guilt, a continual theme in this story. Relieved that his mother is alive, he tends to her care, all the while allowing her to think that one of the intruders shot her. Both mother and son become determined to exact revenge. Although Elspeth's wounds are far from healed, she and Caleb soon set out in the frigid wilderness, following the killers' footprints, "their trail in the snow like a long snake of guilt, winding its evil way into and out of their house."

Mainly through flashbacks interspersed early on and for most of the novel (with mixed results, a point to be covered later), we learn that Elspeth has a past that still haunts her. These secrets are gradually revealed to Caleb as the story unfolds. Just as a hint, however, it's fair to say that Elspeth is a deeply troubled woman.

On the snow-covered trail, a man tells Elspeth and Caleb about a place called the Elm Inn, which turns out to be a brothel built on stilts. For a while, unbeknownst to his mother, Caleb keeps returning to the Elm, convinced it is "indeed a home for killers," specifically the men he wants to track down. Caleb gets a job at the inn of ill repute, sweeping and cleaning, and earns enough money to buy a pistol. Brawl scenes play out and often convey the feel of a western, with plenty of colorful—and violent—characters, including the inn owner, London White, and another mysterious man named Martin Shane. With time, Caleb learns he and Shane have a surprising connection.

Meanwhile, to earn money while she and her son continue their search for the killers, Elspeth gets a job in the ice trade (see 'Beyond the Book') and forges a complicated friendship with a male worker. Soul-baring confessions and revelations ensue, and lead to a nail-biting conclusion.

Throughout, 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, 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.

Regarding the flashbacks mentioned earlier: Though these passages—comprised mainly of Caleb's and Elspeth's past experiences and reflections—add to the understanding of their characters, they come across in a few too many spots as misplaced or superfluous, thereby hindering the flow of the narrative.

Nonetheless, The Kept has much to offer, especially for readers who enjoy stories set in earlier time periods, written with vivid descriptions and intricate plots that twist and turn until the final page.

Reviewed by Suzanne Reeder

This review was originally published in January 2014, and has been updated for the January 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Frozen-Water Trade

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: I Found My Tribe
    I Found My Tribe
    by Ruth Fitzmaurice
    Ruth O'Neill was only 28 when she married film director Simon Fitzmaurice in 2004. Changing her...
  • Book Jacket: The Art of the Wasted Day
    The Art of the Wasted Day
    by Patricia Hampl
    Patricia Hampl wants you to know that daydreaming is not a waste of a day. Nor is spending time ...
  • Book Jacket: Circe
    by Madeline Miller
    Towards the end of Madeline Miller's novel Circe, the titular nymph is questioned by her son ...
  • Book Jacket: All the Names They Used for God
    All the Names They Used for God
    by Anjali Sachdeva
    Pre-publication press has already compared Anjali Sachdeva to Kelly Link and other genre-blending ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

A love story for things lost and restored, a lyrical hymn to the power of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Other People's Houses
    by Abbi Waxman

    A hilarious and poignant novel about four families and the affair that changes everything.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

One of the most anticipated books of 2017--now in paperback!


Word Play

Solve this clue:

T E H N Clothes

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.