“You can’t shoot ghosts, son.”
-The Kept, James Scott
It seems peculiarly appropriate to be writing this review now, in the wake of all the crazy winter weather we’ve been having. Non-southerners, quit snickering, a few inches is indeed paralyzing down here: our signing with James Scott was nearly snowed out a few weeks ago … it was almost too apt. But now it’s pushing 70 degrees, so once again, order is restored.
As The Kept opens in the winter of 1897, Elspeth Howell is returning home after a four month absence, during which she was working as a midwife in a nearby town. As she approaches the isolated family farm, however, a sense of desperate unease is triggered by nothing: the complete absence of ordinary sights, sounds, or even smells, playing perfectly into the cliché of “it’s quiet … too quiet”. Her disquiet is justified – her husband and four of their five children have been brutally murdered, leaving twelve-year-old Caleb as the only survivor of the bloody attack that came seemingly out of nowhere. Mother and son then embark on a quest to track down their family’s killers (three men wearing red scarves), but said quest is as much a journey into family history as it is a hunt for justice. That goal is really the merest tip of the iceberg, where they must untangle the threads of the past in order to understand what happened on the farm … and above all, why.
We begin the novel seeing the Howells as a relatively ordinary family, with little unusual about them: as she walks home, Elspeth is preoccupied with missing her husband and running over the gifts she’s bringing the children, having kept meticulous lists so that no one is left out. Despite their initial appearance, there is a great deal more seething and bubbling below the surface of this family, as we gradually come to the realization that the Howells are anything but ordinary. The reality of the family, of their origins and of their past, is much darker than you’d expect from the opening pages. They’ve lived in total and deliberate isolation, deathly afraid of someone discovering and breaching that isolation. In fact, the first thing we learn about Elspeth is that she is a sinner, and she worries constantly about the consequences of those sins, and the enemies she’s made along the way, coming home to roost. Very little about this family makes sense, especially at first, but the more you learn about them, the more you wonder and the more questions are raised.
Caleb and Elspeth each have their own demons, both haunted even before the traumatizing attack, and the situation isn’t helped by their tense, strange, almost non–existent relationship: for all intents and purposes, they’re virtual strangers. Elspeth’s husband, Jorah, was the primary care-giver for the children while she spent long periods of time away from home: she barely knew any of “the” children, as she refers to them, rather than “her” children. Caleb has deliberately isolated himself from the rest of the family, choosing to live in the barn rather than the house and avoiding his father – a choice that no doubt saved his life.
As the novel progresses and as the pair travels away from the farm, both Elspeth and Caleb grow and change, inevitably so. Elspeth is forced to confront her own past and the spreading ramifications of her actions: ripples in a pool, consequences that she never expected, and carrying a lot of guilty knowledge. For the first time, she also begins to grow into the role of parent, protecting Caleb from things he isn’t ready to understand, trying to shield him from the world and her own secrets. As tempting as it is to unburden herself and share the weight of her guilt with Caleb, she can’t bring herself to be that selfish, for the first time truly acting like his mother. In a parallel journey, Caleb … grows up, and is forced to reconcile the inherent contradictions of humanity, contradictions that drove him to the barn in the first place, despite how confusing and unnerving he finds the world outside their farm.
Even beyond Caleb and Elspeth, everyone in this novel, everyone they encounter has secrets and unsavory things to hide. All of the characters have so many stories, a whole lifetime of them, and yet all we get are fragments – which is frustrating and tantalizing and achingly true. Elspeth does not even fully understand her own story, her own past – how can she possibly understand anyone else?
Caleb and Elspeth’s journey takes them both backwards and forwards in time, all at once, as they seek both vengeance in the present and future, and answers and understanding of the attack in the past – and yet they discover to their sorrow that the past cannot be changed, cannot be made whole, no matter how far you travel into it, or how much you wish to. It’s a dark, hard, cruel world that Scott creates: Frank, one of the few truly decent characters they encounter, who does his best to help them, fears for the world his unborn child is about to enter. By the novel’s end, their quest is over … and yet nothing is resolved, making it almost an exercise in futility, one turn of the wheel in the endless cycle of violence, vengeance and deception.