Tooth of the Covenant (The American Novels)

Written by Norman Lock
Review by Bethany Latham

Nathaniel Hawthorne had some less than hidden skeletons in the family closet – he was the great-great-grandson of John Hathorne, one of the foremost judges in the Salem witch trials. Unlike others, Hathorne never expressed regret over his role in the deaths of more than a dozen people based solely on “spectral evidence.” His descendant was shamed by the association, and it has been suggested Nathaniel changed the spelling of the family name to distance himself.

Lock adopts the style and tone of a Hawthorne novel to create metafiction on steroids. The conceit is that Hawthorne, in 1851, is writing a character (dubbed Isaac Page) who represents himself, sending him back to 1692 to save those condemned as witches by his ancestor. The title, “Tooth of the Covenant,” refers to doubt’s place in the covenant of belief – a tooth to “bite and gnaw where conscience has its quick.” Hawthorne uses as temporal anchor John Hathorne’s spectacles, which have survived as a family heirloom. Yet when Isaac dons the spectacles in 1692, he begins to see the world through Hathorne’s eyes, calling all he thinks he knows into question.

Lock is a literary chameleon, and his efforts in pastiche have been uniformly fascinating. As part of the American Novels series, he’s taken on a variety of 19th-century authors – Melville, Thoreau, Twain. Unfortunately, he’s better at holistic balance while riffing on some styles than others (e.g., Poe in The Port-Wine Stain, a stronger offering than this one). While it suffers in comparison to some of Lock’s other works (it’s hard to drive the nail straight home with every hammer swing), when considered as a creative homage that asks questions relevant in both the 17th century and our own, this novel certainly deserves attention.