In the Fall

Written by Jeffrey Lent
Review by Nan Curnutt

In this masterfully written debut novel, Jeffrey Lent traces the story of three generations as they struggle to overcome the shadows of the past.

The story begins at the end of the Civil War when wounded Union soldier Norman Pelham is nursed back to health by a runaway slave girl named Leah. Leah is running from trouble. She explains to Norman that her white half brother tried to molest her. In her struggle to get away, she mortally wounded him, and another slave helped her to escape. Leah and Norman fall in love and marry, despite their racial differences. They return to the Vermont hills to farm the land where Norman grew up. Theirs is an enduring love. Lent says of Pelham, “He was not simple in love but ferocious with it.” This is obvious in the way he protects Leah from the scorn of his neighbors and family. Her love for him is just as fierce. Norman and Leah have two daughters and one son. Life for these children is not easy; they suffer misunderstanding and rejection because of prejudice.

Leah’s guilt over the past and her desire to find her mother finally drive her to make a trip down South to find the threads of her past. When she comes back, she is a defeated woman. She will allow no one in the family to know what she learned, but it changes the course of their history through three generations. Each generation of the Pelham family has its own story to tell. Each person is distinct in his or her own way, yet all are bound together through more than just blood. They are emotionally bound to Leah and the mysterious events that shook the core of her being.

Lent’s characters are richly drawn and passionate. The author’s descriptive technique is such that even simple events have meaning. His stream of conscious narrative is provocative, yet in places it becomes difficult to follow. For instance, one paragraph begins: “Now legs dangling above the sawpit, already in the shade of the spruce the winter evening spreading like inkstain but him with the sun on his face.” Although the prosaic style is a bit choppy, the reader feels Norman’s satisfaction with the things that surround him. Not all Pelhams feel this satisfaction. Jamie Pelham, Norman and Leah’s son, says, “Mostly people are cruel, given the chance.” In this novel, it is the cruel who enjoy smashing the idyllic existence of innocence. Passion plays against passion, and almost always the passion of hatred destroys the passion of love.