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In her luminous and long-awaited new novel, bestselling author Elizabeth Strout welcomes readers back to the archetypal, lovely landscape of northern New England, where the events of her first novel, Amy and Isabelle, unfolded. In the late 1950s, in the small town of West Annett, Maine, a minister struggles to regain his calling, his family, and his happiness in the wake of profound loss. At the same time, the community he has served so charismatically must come to terms with its own strengths and failings–faith and hypocrisy, loyalty and abandonment–when a dark secret is revealed.
Tyler Caskey has come to love West Annett, “just up the road” from where he was born. The short, brilliant summers and the sharp, piercing winters fill him with awe–as does his congregation, full of good people who seek his guidance and listen earnestly as he preaches. But after suffering a terrible loss, Tyler finds it hard to return to himself as he once was. He hasn’t had The Feeling–that God is all around him, in the beauty of the world–for quite some time. He struggles to find the right words in his sermons and in his conversations with those facing crises of their own, and to bring his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, out of the silence she has observed in the wake of the family’s tragedy.
A congregation that had once been patient and kind during Tyler’s grief now questions his leadership and propriety. In the kitchens, classrooms, offices, and stores of the village, anger and gossip have started to swirl. And in Tyler’s darkest hour, a startling discovery will test his congregation’s humanity–and his own will to endure the kinds of trials that sooner or later test us all.
In prose incandescent and artful, Elizabeth Strout draws readers into the details of ordinary life in a way that makes it extraordinary. All is considered–life, love, God, and community–within these pages, and all is made new by this writer’s boundless compassion and graceful prose.
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Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle, won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award as well as the Orange Prize in England. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The New Yorker. Currently she is on the faculty of the low-residency M.F.A. program at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Oh, it would be years ago now, but at one time a minister lived with his small daughter in a town up north near the Sabbanock River, up where the river is narrow and the winters used to be especially long. The minister’s name was Tyler Caskey, and for quite some while his story was told in towns up and down the river, and as far over as the coast, until it emerged with enough variations so as to lose its original punch, and just the passing of time, of course, will affect the vigor of these things. But there are a few people still living in the town of West Annett who are said to remember quite clearly the events that took place during the wintry, final months of 1959. And if you inquire with enough patience and restraint of curiosity, you can probably get them to tell you what it is they claim to know, although its accuracy might be something you’d have to sort out on your own.
We do know the Reverend Tyler Caskey had two daughters at the time, but the littler one, really just a toddler then, lived with Tyler’s mother a few hours away, farther down the river in a town called Shirley Falls, where the river got wide and the roadways and buildings more frequent and substantial, things taking on a more serious tone than what you might find up near the town of West Annett. Up there, you could drive for miles—and still can—on twisting back roads, not passing by anything more than the occasional farmhouse, acres of fields and woods all around. In one of these farmhouses, the minister and his little girl Katherine lived.
The place was at least a hundred years old, built and farmed for decades by the family of Joshua Locke. But by the end of the Depression, when the farmers had no money to pay for hired hands, the farm had fallen into disrepair. Their blacksmith business, started before the First World War, also dwindled away to nothing. Eventually the house was occupied, and remained so for years, by the sole inheritor, Carl Locke, a man who seldom came into town, and who, when called upon to pull open his door, did so holding a rifle. But in the end he had left the entire place—house, barn, and a few acres of fields—to the Congregational church, even though no one seemed to remember him being inside the church more than twice in his life.
At any rate, West Annett, even containing as it did the three white buildings of Annett Academy, was a fairly small town; its church coffers were small as well. When Reverend Smith, the minister who had been there for years and years, finally got around to retiring, hauling his deaf wife with him off to South Carolina, where apparently some nephew waited to look after their needs, the church board waved them good-bye with a tepid farewell, then turned around enthusiastically and made a very nice real estate deal. The parsonage on Main Street was sold to the local dentist, and the new minister would be housed at the Locke place, out there on Stepping Stone Road.
The Pulpit Committee had made their recommendation of Tyler Caskey with this in mind, counting on his youth, his big-boned, agreeable nature, and the discomfort he had shown right away in discussing matters of money, to prevent him from complaining about being housed in a field two miles from town; and on all these points they were right. The minister, in the six years he had lived there now, had never once complained, and except for permission to paint the living room and dining room pink, had never asked the church for anything.
Which is partly why the house remained a bit ramshackle, inside and out. It had a broken porch railing and tilting front steps. But it offered those pleasing lines you find in old houses sometimes; a tall two-story, with generous windows and a nice slope to the roof. And if you studied the place for a moment—the southern exposure it got on the side, the way the mudroom faced north—you realized the people who built it years before had possessed a fine sense of what they were doing; there was a symmetry here that was unadorned, kind to the eye.
So begin with a day in early October, when it’s easy to think of the sun shining hard, the fields surrounding the minister’s house brown and gold, the trees on the hills sparkling a yellowy-red. There was—there always is—plenty to worry about. The Russians had sent up their Sputnik satellites two years before—one whirling around right now with that poor dead dog inside—and were said to be spying on us from outer space, as well as right here in our own country. Nikita Khrushchev, squatty and remarkably unattractive, had even arrived a couple of weeks before for a visit to America, whether people liked it or not—and many did not; they were afraid he’d be killed before getting home, and then what horrors might ensue! Experts, whoever they were, and however they did it, had determined that a guided missile from Moscow to New York would fall within 7.3 miles of its target, and while it was a comfort to live outside this radius, there were three families in West Annett who had bomb shelters in their backyards anyway, because after all, you never knew.
Still: This happened to be the first year in many where countrywide church membership had not increased at a greater rate than the general population, and that, if you thought about it, had to mean something. Possibly it meant people were not panicking. Possibly it meant people wanted to believe, and were apparently believing—particularly here in the northern reaches of New England, where the same people had lived for years, not many communists among them (although there were a few)—that after half a century of colossal human horror, the world really could perhaps be finally decent, and safe, and good.
And today—the one we’ve chosen to start with—was lovely in its sunny brightness, the tops of those distant trees a brave and brilliant yellowy-red. Even keeping in mind how this kind of autumn day can be an awful thing, harsh and sharp as broken glass, the sky so blue it could break down the middle, the day was perfectly beautiful, too. The kind of day where you could easily imagine the tall minister out for a walk, thinking, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. It had, in fact, been Reverend Caskey’s habit that fall to take a morning walk down Stepping Stone Road, then turn back up around Ringrose Pond, and there were some mornings when he continued on into town, headed to his study in the basement of the church, waving to people along the way who tapped their horns, or stopping to talk to a car that pulled over, leaning his large body down to peer into the window, smiling, nodding, his hand lingering on the car door until the window was rolled up, a wave good-bye.
But not this morning.
This morning the man was sitting in his study at home, tapping a pen against the top of his desk. Right after breakfast, he had received a telephone call from his daughter’s school. His daughter’s teacher was a young woman named Mrs. Ingersoll, and she had asked the minister in a remarkably clear voice—though it was somewhat too high-pitched for his taste—if he would come to school in the late afternoon to discuss Katherine’s behavior.
“Is there a problem?” the minister had said. And during the pause that followed, he said, “I’ll come in, of course,” standing up, holding the black telephone while he looked around the room as though something had been misplaced. “Thank you for calling,” he added. “If there’s any kind of problem, of course I want to know.”
A small, stinging pain below his collarbone arrived, and, placing his hand over it, the man had the odd momentary sense of someone about to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Then for some minutes he walked back and forth in front of his desk, his fingers tapping his mouth. Nobody, of course, wants to start a morning this way, but it was especially true for Reverend Caskey, who had suffered his share of recent sorrows, and while people were aware of this, the man was really far more worn down than anyone knew.
the minister’s study in the old farmhouse had been for many years the bedroom of Carl Locke. It was a large room on the first floor, with a view of what must have been, at one time, a very nice side garden. An old birdbath still stood in the center of a circular design of now mostly broken bricks, and vines grew over a tilting trellis, beyond which could be seen part of a meadow and an old stone wall that wobbled its way out of sight.
While Tyler Caskey had heard stories of the cantankerous and, some said, filthy old man who had lived here before him, while his wife had even complained for months when they first moved in that she could, in this room on a warm day, detect the smell of urine, the truth is that Tyler liked the room very much. He liked the view; he’d even come to feel some affinity to the old man himself. And now Tyler thought he wouldn’t go for his morning walk; he’d sit right here where another fellow had struggled apparently with righteousness, and probably loneliness, too.
There was a sermon to prepare. There always was; and the one for this Sunday the minister was going to call “On the Perils of Personal Vanity.” A tricky topic, requiring discretion—what specifics would he use?—particularly as he was hoping with its teaching to head off a crisis that loomed on the ecclesiastical horizon here in West Annett regarding the purchase of a new organ. You can be sure that in a small town where there is only one church, the decision as to whether or not that church needs a new organ can...
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