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James Scott’s debut novel “The Kept” (excerpt below) has already been garnering critical acclaim. The New York Times calls it both “daring and bleak,” and compares the book to Charles Portis’ “True Grit” and the novels of Cormac McCarthy.
The novel is set in 1897 and tells the story of Elspeth, a midwife who returns home after a several months’ absence to find her husband and four of their five children murdered. Her fifth child, Caleb, mistakes her for one of the killers and shoots and wounds her. However, Elspeth survives, and the two go off on a hunt for the murderers.
Though “The Kept” might be a tale more familiar to fans of Westerns, Scott’s tale is set in upstate New York near Lake Erie, in the dead of winter.
As Scott tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, that setting is a familiar one to him. As a child, he often visited his grandparents in the Syracuse area, and it’s an appropriate location, he says.
“When those storms gather over the lakes, and they come in, the sky is just so oppressive, it’s just this steely gray mass that just weighs down on you,” he says.
On how the setting communicates theme
“This is a family that has isolated themselves purposefully, but also the landscape has served to make that isolation easier and more complete. And there’s this idea of shutting yourself in in the winter, and keeping this family separate from everything else is much easier when you’re completely surrounded by snow, and there’s nothing else you can do.”
On historical accuracy
“I don’t really consider myself a writer of historical fiction, in that the history isn’t foremost to me, the story is first and foremost … but I definitely did do a lot of research. I spoke to a midwife about some really gruesome scenes that occur later in the book, and that was really difficult. I had sort of been slogging through obstetric journals and histories of midwifery, and they were hard for me to get through.”
By James Scott
Elspeth Howell was a sinner. The thought passed over her like a shadow as she washed her face or caught her reflection in a window or disembarked from a train after months away from home. Whenever she saw a church or her husband quoted verse or she touched the simple cross around her neck while she fetched her bags, her transgressions lay in the hollow of her chest, hard and heavy as stone. The multitude of her sins—anger, covetousness, thievery—created a tension in her body, and all that could ease the pressure was movement, finding something to occupy her wicked hands and her tempted mind, and so she churned her legs against snow that piled in drifts to her waist.
While the miles passed, the sky over Elspeth became nothing but a gray smudge and weighty clouds released their burden. She loosened the scarf from her face and the cold invaded her lungs. As soon as a drop of sweat slid out from under a glove or down a curl of hair, it turned to ice that flickered in the last of the light.
In her pocket, she kept a list of the children’s names and ages, the years crossed out two and three times, so that when she bought gifts, she forgot no one. She carried a fish scaler for Amos, fourteen, a goose caller for Caleb, twelve, a hunting knife for Jesse, ten, a fifty-inch broadcloth for Mary, fifteen, a length of purple ribbon for Emma, six, and a small vial of perfume for both girls to share. Wrapped with care against the elements, hidden at the bottom of the bag, were strawberry hard candies, gumdrops, and chewing gum. For her husband, she brought two boxes of ammunition and a new pair of sheep shears. Collectively these goods had cost her only a fraction of her four months’ midwife salary. The rest resided in the toes of her boots.
The valley stretched out behind her; the tracks she’d left were already erased. When she’d stepped off the train in Deerstand midmorning, the snow had been a lazy flurry, but the closer she got to home, the deeper the snow became, and the more furiously it fell. It was as if, she thought, God wanted to keep outsiders away as much as the Howells did. “We are an Ark unto ourselves, waiting for the floodwaters to rise,” her husband, Jorah, liked to say. She heard his calming voice in her ears, over the sighing wind and the whisper of wet snowflakes, and she missed him. She longed for his silken hair against her cheek at night, his soft footsteps as he left in the morning to milk, and his smell—of leaves, of smoke, of outdoor air.
She’d meant to come home in October. The baby had been born before the snow covered the earth, and she went by every day to check on its well-being, to touch each of its little fingers and their
pearly nails. The child grew as October gave way to November and the calendar flirted with December. The city—any city—always had need for a midwife. Even that morning, looking out the window, warm by the fire, she couldn’t bring herself to leave, and failed to get on the train before dawn had broken, revealing a clear, bright day.
Still a ways from home, something nagged at the back of her head, threatening to push forward and topple her. She hurried, but the rush made for careless steps. The path shrank, and she passed between naked oaks and shivering pines. The light emanating from the snow turned the color of a new bruise as the day died, glowing just enough to mark her way. The terrain leveled again and she broke through the woods. Elspeth knew by the rolling of the ground that she crossed the cornfields; the dead stalks cracked beneath the ice and snow. She tromped alongside the creek that brought them their water, frozen at the surface but trickling below. It was then that the fear that had been tugging at her identified itself: It was nothing. No smell of a winter fire; no whoops from the boys rounding up the sheep or herding the cows; no welcoming light.
She crested the last rise. The house nestled in the bosom of the hill. The small plateau seemed made for them, chiseled by God for their security, to hold them like a perfect secret. She held her breath, hoping for some hint of life, and heard nothing but the far-off snap of a branch. Everything stood still. She could not make out the smoke from the chimney, and despite the late hour, no lamps shone in the windows. Elspeth began to run. She tripped, and her pack shoved her into the snow. Clawing with her hands, digging with her feet, she pushed herself upright and rushed toward home.
Closer, she noticed a hollow in the snow, next to the front door. A bear, she thought, a wolf, but nausea welled in her belly and said different. A glimpse of color spurred her on. The hole drew her toward it, and she feared that it would swallow her, as she’d once seen—from this very hilltop—a tornado envelop a hundred-foot oak and leave nothing but a ragged gap where the roots had been. The color flickered again, a small swatch of red reaching out from the darkness like the Devil’s forked tongue. The screen door clapped against the house as Elspeth pitched herself forward and fell to her knees. There, dressed in her nightgown, lay Emma, the youngest, her blond curls matted with blood. The red ribbon holding her hair waved in the wind, almost free. The snow had melted and then refrozen in an obsidian mass beneath her. A fine layer of powder had settled on her gown and face, and Elspeth removed her gloves to brush it away. Emma had been shot. The cold had puckered the skin around the clean bullet wound on her forehead, the blood there a thin red ring. Elspeth whimpered a small, ferocious noise, and rubbed her hands together before she dared to pull a few loose strands of hair from the wound and tuck them back behind the girl’s ear. If these images didn’t cause Elspeth instant revulsion, Emma might merely be sleeping. The snow gone, her hair in place, Emma looked more like herself, and that made Elspeth’s pain burn brighter. She wished to call out, to scream for someone to help, but their Ark had been chosen for its isolation; Deerstand was the nearest town, a six-hour walk that Elspeth had barely made in daylight. She looked to the barn, where Caleb slept, and saw no signs of life there, either. The cold that they warded off with their structures and their fires had won: No warmth lingered on the hill. Nothing could be done. No help could be summoned.
The screen creaked behind her as Elspeth pushed open the front door. The house, usually heated to bursting on an early winter’s night, offered no respite from the cold. The kerosene lamp stood unlit in the middle of the kitchen table, the matches beside it. She removed her pack, and shook the snow from her hat and shoulders, stalling. She didn’t want to see what the light would offer.
In the darkness she grasped the coatrack Jesse had built. Jackets hung on every hook. They were cold. She bent down and touched the neat alignment of shoes and boots beneath the windowsill next to the door and found no puddle of melted snow beneath them. She left her own buttons fastened and her laces tied tight.
She struck a match and touched it to the soaked wick of the lamp, the brightness causing her to turn away. She adjusted the flame and let her vision acclimate. Not three feet from her, Mary sprawled across the stovetop. Elspeth recognized the pattern of the dress Mary wore, a gift from an earlier trip. She, too, had been shot, but from behind. The stitching of her dress—tidy and taut from the girl’s own hand—kept her off the floor, the fabric tangling in the hardware of the stove front. As Elspeth backed away from
the body, lowering the lamp, she made out Amos on the ground, four steps from his older sister. He must have been helping with the meal. He’d cut his hair since she’d last seen him, when it had hung down like a girl’s, almost to his shoulders, and he’d developed a tic to keep it from his face, a sudden flick of the neck. Elspeth squatted to touch the bristly hair and wondered if the tic had remained after the hair was gone, the same way her father had sometimes fallen in the morning getting out of bed, forgetting he’d lost his leg to the millstones. She thought that Amos’s eyes had been stolen, or shot out, but when the lamplight struck his face, she saw that two large brass buttons, the type found on overalls, obscured his blank gaze. She fell back onto her hands. She couldn’t tell if her heartbeat had slowed to normal or stopped altogether. Like an insect, she crept backward, away from the bodies, until she hit the wall. They’d been babies once, swaddled and cradled in her arms. The crowns of their heads had smelled so sweet. How she’d held them. How she’d nuzzled and kissed them.
In the silence, she heard a low whistle and froze. It continued. Then she felt it, on her bare hand, the outside forcing its way through the bullet holes that dotted the house. They announced themselves to her, ten, twenty, countless large bullet holes, then dozens, maybe hundreds more from the pellets of a shotgun. The room contracted and she bent over and clasped her hands to her knees. When she recovered, she moved to the living area, a rectangular space that ran the length of the building, and discovered Jesse
facedown in front of his parents’ door, both arms extended above his head, as if he’d been shot diving into a stream. Elspeth had to step around him, her foot leaving a patch of snow in the crook between his arm and his body.
She opened the door, but shut her eyes before the lamp confirmed her fears. She inhaled. The bedroom smelled how she remembered it, of Jorah sleeping, his breath filling the air. She lifted her eyelids, their weight palpable. Upon seeing her husband, she moaned and pressed her fists to her temples like she could hold her thoughts together with pure force. Jorah lay in bed, his face frozen in a grimace of anger, his eyebrows knotted and teeth clenched. His bare torso bore his wounds. One soil-stained foot touched the floor and she allowed herself to think of his soft padding steps trying not to wake her in the morning. The wind insisted, drowning out her reverie, rasping a ghostly noise through their bedroom. The bed itself was stained black. She kicked dozens of shotgun shells and rifle casings that littered the floor and they chimed against one another. She could not bring herself to touch her husband’s gray skin. Usually, when she’d returned from one of her trips, Jorah would be sleeping on the same sheets that had been on the bed when she’d left. She could place a fresh set on the dresser, and in her absence it would do nothing but gather dust. Weeks later, when she came back, the sheets Jorah had been content to lie upon would be stiff with dirt: from the barn, from the fields, and from his own sweat. The springs squeaked beneath her when she knelt on the bed to pull the linens from under his weight. Jorah’s joints had locked; she hefted his legs onto the mattress and fought to straighten them, but still would not touch his skin. She stripped the thickened sheets as she’d learned with bedridden pregnant women, gently rolling him onto his side when she needed. Once she freed them, she pressed the bunched linen to her face, and breathed in the odor of her husband. The blood didn’t bother her; it was, after all, his. There, on the dresser, sat the clean sheets she’d left for him. She snapped them open, the only sound in a house normally so filled with noise that Elspeth used to retreat into the fields to think or to pray or to worry over the growing thrum of temptation in her body. The new sheets glowed like snow, reflecting the lamplight. She drew them taut under Jorah, pulling as gently as possible, because every time his body moved with the motion of the sheets, it was just that—a body. Not a man, not her husband. When she’d finished, she lifted Jorah’s head, replaced the pillowcase, fluffed the down again, raised his head once more, feeling the back of his neck, formerly soft and warm, now cold and firm. She shook her hand as if the sensation would slide from her fingers like drops of water. He’d never looked so small, her protector. To her, he’d loomed over everyone and everything, blanketing them with all the safety and the comfort he could muster.
She extinguished the lamp and lay beside him as the wind erupted and swept through the house. Outside it pushed the clouds south, and the moon rose, casting silver light onto the floorboards, the boots Jorah set beside the bed each night, and the empty shotgun shells.
Excerpted from the book THE KEPT by James Scott. Copyright © 2014 by James Scott. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Author James Scott has written a stunning debut novel, but it may not be for the faint of heart. "The Kept" is set in 1897. Elspeth is walking home after working away as a midwife for several months. Instantly, we feel the barren beauty and danger of winter in upstate New York.
JAMES SCOTT: (Reading) She crested the last rise. The house nestled in the bosom of the hill. The small plateau seemed made for them, chiseled by God for their security, to hold them like a perfect secret. She held her breath, hoping for some hint of life, and heard nothing but the far-off snap of a branch. Everything stood still. She could not make out the smoke from the chimney, and despite the late hour, no lamps shone in the windows. Elspeth began to run. She tripped, and her pack shoved her into the snow. Clawing with her hands, digging with her feet, she pushed herself upright and rushed towards home.
YOUNG: Elspeth sees a carcass outside the house. Might be a bear? No. It's one of her daughters. Her husband and three more of their children are also shot dead. And just when you think it can't get more horrific, her remaining son, 12-year-old Caleb, shoots her, mistaking her for the killers. And just when you think your heart will break for her, you learn she kidnapped and kept all of the children from the very women she was supposed to be helping to deliver them.
Caleb doesn't know this, and with his recovering mom, sets off to find the murderers, a trek that The New York Times compares to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and Charles Portis' "True Grit." James Scott's new novel is called "The Kept" and he joins us in the studio. Welcome and congratulations.
SCOTT: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: Yeah. So wherever did you find this, a midwife that steals five children? I mean, had you come across - you know, often we hear from an author, well, they came across a yellowed clipping about a story of such and such. Did you know nothing? How did how come up with this story?
SCOTT: No, there was no - so far as I know, luckily, there's no historical precedent that I relay that it looks back at. It was just a matter of starting from a single image to me, which was that of Caleb wiping the snow from his sister's face.
YOUNG: The sister who had been shot outside the house.
SCOTT: Yes. Emma, his younger sister. And then it was just asking a lot of questions about what had happened. And I quickly became interested in a lot of the sort of larger ideas that were behind it, and one of those being to me the idea of the difference between a mom and a mother. And that is what Elspeth struggles with.
YOUNG: Because while she is addicted to them as infants, she's not as interested in them as they get older.
SCOTT: No. Once they gain some complexity, it's too hard for her. She loves this rush that she gets from them as a child when they need her so completely. And then once the questions get more complex, she doesn't know what to do with them any longer.
YOUNG: Yeah. And of course, this storyline can progress because you plunk her and her feverishly religious husband down in rural upstate New York, Lake Erie side where it's ferociously cold. He doesn't approve but doesn't quite know what to do with this. But they're so isolated, there's no one else that really sees it. And what about New York state as a character here because it feels like a frontier story. It feels like it'd be set in the West. As they go look for the murderers, they end up in a town on Lake Erie, complete with a brothel and a, you know, it's a rough town. It feels like it could be a cowboy story.
SCOTT: Yeah. I think I was influenced by Westerns and especially Southern gothic literature, which I'd read an enjoyed very much as a teenager. And I still read it a lot and enjoy it now. And my grandparents were from and lived in the Syracuse area for most of their lives, and driving up there across these sort of vast expanses of open land - I've never been to the South, and so these books that I'd read and loved, that was the only place I could conceive of them happening. That was all that I knew.
There is something too about the quality of the sky, literally the actual physical landscape. When those storms gather over the lakes and they come in, the sky is just so oppressive. It's just this steely, gray mass that really weighs down on you.
YOUNG: It's interesting. I read it over the Christmas holiday and over and over in my mind, I kept hearing the hymn "In the Bleak Midwinter." Here's the first graph(ph): In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow on snow. And that - but that's - I mean, tell me more about the weather and that - its role in the story.
SCOTT: Well, there's an isolation that's possible, I think, when the weather is that way. And this is a family that's isolated themselves purposely, but also the landscape has served to make that isolation easier and more complete. And, you know, there's this idea of sort of shutting yourself in in the winter, and keeping this family sort of separate from everything else is much easier when you're completely surrounded by snow and there's nothing else you can do. There's really no place to go.
YOUNG: Yeah. So where did you do your research for this? Obviously, visiting grandparents helped because parts of upstate New York have not changed that much. But did you research how people had to walk on foot, how people might have been killed by blocks of ice in icehouses?
SCOTT: Yeah, I did. I looked a lot into icehouses and pulling ice from the lake, and I think it is in some ways historically accurate. In other ways, I bent stuff in order to make it sort of suit the story. I don't really consider myself a writer of historical fiction, in that the history isn't first and foremost to me. The story is first and foremost. So I don't feel quite as beholden to it. But I definitely did do a lot of research.
I spoke to a midwife about some really gruesome scenes that occur later in the book, and that was difficult. I've been sort of been slogging through, you know, obstetric journals and histories of midwifery, and they were hard for me to get through. But just talking to someone, she was able and very kind to put it into words that I can understand.
YOUNG: And we should explain that the icehouse comes into play because that's where Elspeth goes to work...
SCOTT: Yeah. That's where she finds her employment.
YOUNG: ...after she gets to this town where they're going to find these killers. And it's just - hard, hard work, you know, these huge blocks of ice. We're not going to give away the ending.
YOUNG: But the question has been asked. How can you do this to a 12-year-old? This 12-year-old, he's seeking revenge, he's wrestling with who his mother is, he's - who he is.
SCOTT: Yeah. And he's never experienced the world before. And his family, especially his father, Jora(ph), who's very religious, is a very binary person. Things are very black and white. And for Caleb, as he goes out and makes his way in the worked, he's discovering that things are not quite that simple. And for him, the only thing that he has left is his mother who he's never spent much time with. And to me, it's actually hopeful because a lot of the book is about the way that they are able to start to come together and the way that they're able to get to know each other and the way that they're able to get past some of the things that they've been forced to do.
YOUNG: Yeah. What about this overarching idea of revenge? As Tom Perrotta writes of your book, it starts out as a straightforward revenge narrative. Then it deepens into something more mysterious. But it is about revenge. And there's no question. There's no - you know, the characters don't even question it that it's going to happen.
SCOTT: Yeah. There's a single-mindedness to it for them that gives them something to concentrate on. And I think in the wake of what has happened, a lot of times, that's the easiest thing to do. And it's the only thing you can sort of, you know, I've lost a lot of people, sadly, that have been very close to me. And in those times, I often find myself figuring out the simplest thing that I can do.
And so for them, just as any kind of suave, any kind of bomb to what has happened, this is they think it's they're duty. But they also think that it might in some ways save some piece of themselves. You know, you do tend to sort of revert back to a level of simplicity that in other times in life you sort of can't find. So it's just a stripping away of everything else.
YOUNG: Well, it's also - stripping away. It also speaks to that time that place: stark, leafless trees, binary, black and white landscapes and someone gets killed. Someone has to pay.
SCOTT: Yeah. It's a pretty simple equation, I guess. But then once the door is kicked open, there's a lot of complexity that then can barge through that same opening.
YOUNG: That's James Scott. His new book is "The Kept." Thanks so much for talking to us about it.
SCOTT: Thank you, Robin. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER")
YOUNG: And this is that hymn. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
And I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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