James Scott’s debut novel is a dark, cold and brutal story of revenge and obsession set in remote upstate New York in the winter of 1897.
Elspeth is a midwife, a sinner (she says), who leaves her husband and five children for months at a time to ply her trade. We first meet her as she is trudging for miles and hours through waist-deep snow, on her way home, her pack carrying presents for the children. The closer she gets to her isolated home, the stronger her sense of unease. There is “No smell of a winter fire...no welcoming light.”
The house is dark, quiet and holds a terrible fulfillment of Elspeth’s premonition. The cold whistles through the hundreds of bullet holes in the walls of the house and one after the other, she finds the bloodied bodies of her dead children and her husband, Jorah. However, she does not find the body of 12-year-old Caleb in the house, and the barn where he sleeps is also dark.
When another shot is fired Elspeth is hit and Caleb, who survived by hiding, cares for her. As the grim story of their present peril unfolds we learn the story of the past, of dark secrets held closely by Elspeth and why she and Jorah deliberately chose to live “in an expanse...so vast and empty that even those looking for the house would have difficulty finding it.”
When she has recovered sufficiently, this woman of iron and mystery and this young boy who is torn with the guilt of survival set out in search of the three men who murdered their family “to find the men responsible and snatch everything away from them with equal cruelty.”
Their journey is as bleak and difficult as might be expected under the circumstances. Elspeth is both physically and emotionally damaged, tormented by her past demons as well as those in the present. Caleb struggles to assume the role of an adult as he tries to inhabit the mind of someone who is a killer, “like one of the three men in red scarves” he saw from the barn, someone who could find and kill those three men. Through all of this is the awkward and bittersweet struggle for them to connect with each other. Elspeth has been the distant, mostly absent mother and Caleb the reserved, apart child.
The penultimate and longest stop on their journey is in the town of Watersbridge on the frozen shore of Lake Erie where the primary enterprises seem to be harvesting ice from the lake and indulging in debauchery at the Elm Inn.
There is, of course, a tragic inevitability to this story and from the first page it is not possible to foresee a rosy outcome. The beauty of this book is in its terribleness, its originality and its exquisite writing.