James Scott’s debut novel is far from the work of a novice. After earning a fistful of honors for his short fiction at esteemed writers’ conferences, he has now turned his talents to the longer form. His haunting novel follows two eccentric characters – a mother and son. Midwife Elspeth Howell travels vast distances through the countryside to perform her services. She is often away from her family for months at a time. When she returns home, she often brings with her a baby, and thus their family grows. After this happens repeatedly, and the babies develop distinctly different features, husband Jorah confronts her: “Whose children are these?” The question of whether Elspeth is rescuing unwanted babies or has become a nursery kleptomaniac is just one of the enticing mysteries woven through an intricate plot.
And then there’s her son, Caleb, a strange boy who is most at ease bunking in the barn with the animals. That’s where he happens to be one night when Elspeth is away and three strangers appear, enter the house, and slaughter Caleb’s father, brothers, and sisters. Terrified by the gunfire, he cowers in the barn, but when he later hears sounds again in the house he thinks that the killers have returned. Twelve-year-old Caleb takes up his gun and shoots the intruder. His mother, terribly injured in the incident and near death, has only Caleb, the least capable of her children, to nurse her back to health. When the two of them set off together on a mission of vengeance into the isolated wilderness of 1897 upstate New York, they make a sorry pair. But it’s their determination and the secrets they carry with them that make this brutally realistic novel utterly impossible to put down. Highly recommended as an introduction to a gifted new novelist.