Late in James Scott’s first novel, “The Kept,” a brothel owner named London White summarizes the story as being about “children gone missing, men changing into women, murder, betrayal, greed . . . quite a yarn, indeed.” Indeed, and he left out women changing into men, various forms of death by ice, and an innocent boy named Caleb, who is driven by the desire to seek revenge after witnessing the murder of his siblings and father. That they are not literally his blood relations becomes central to this story in which good and evil prove to be different but equal forms of blindness.
The novel begins with Caleb’s mother, Elspeth Howell, acknowledging that she is a sinner and that “her sins were tied with the Devil’s strings to those she’d wronged.” Elspeth steals babies and, in doing so, has built a family with her husband, Jorah, who frequently quotes the Bible while tending to a remote farm in upstate New York in the last years of the 19th century. When Elspeth returns from one of her frequent sojourns to distant towns, where she finds work as a midwife, she discovers that her entire family has been slaughtered — save the 12-year-old Caleb, who hid in the hayloft and watched as men wearing red scarves gunned down his four younger “siblings” and Jorah. This act of brutality leads Elspeth and Caleb to abandon their rural sanctuary in search of the killers.
After much hardship, Elspeth and Caleb arrive, cold and starving, at Watersbridge, a village on Lake Erie where, as in Hawthorne’s Salem, sin and virtue reside in an uneasy alliance and “every man’s face possessed some kind of threat, some shade of darkness.” To survive, Elspeth cuts her hair, binds her breasts and dresses as a man so that she might find work at the local icehouse, while Caleb performs menial chores at London White’s brothel. This is not the American wilderness in all its transcendental glory, but the barren, snowbound frontier where death provides the only mercy for its sorry inhabitants. “Here,” Elspeth tells Caleb, “disbelief is as important as belief.”
Scott’s prose is impressively informed by a powerful concoction of American fundamentalism spiked with the fervent belief in an eye-for-eye. There are scenes that paint the landscape in drab Wyeth-like colors, and finer passages read with the stark clarity of a Johnny Cash song.
However, at times the narrative suffers from its own deliberateness, causing essential information to be buried beneath detail, particularly in Book I, where Elspeth and Caleb begin their slow recovery from the shock of such an inexplicable assault upon their farm. Yet to Scott’s credit, “The Kept” is laden with shrewd, arresting images, such as when “harsh whispers” erupt in a church during a mass funeral which follows a horrific accident in the icehouse; Elspeth can “see the disturbance coming toward them as a fishing line disrupts the water.”
This is a novel about faith and its attendant shadow, grief. Elspeth is a woman who never loses sight of the consequences of Original Sin, and Caleb possesses the contradictions of American youth that allow him to maintain a pure heart while honing a killer’s instinct with an Ithaca shotgun. There is nothing post-modern here; if anything, “The Kept” subscribes to an aesthetic that might be considered pre-modern, or perhaps coming from the dark side of the Great Awakening, where the divinely inspired are compelled to seek a furious vengeance.
In such a novel, a chapter might justifiably conclude with roiling Biblical rhythms: “And as they neared the city, the wind erasing their journey, each of their heads rang with the belief that the Devil did indeed nestle in their skulls, and their foreheads burned with the sweat of his wicked imagination.” Ultimately, Elspeth and Caleb find what they have been seeking, and “The Kept” concludes with rare discoveries, the kind that go beyond justice to retribution. In different ways, their souls are liberated, and their hard-won freedom offers a haunting portrait of human capability. Here, at the beginning of his career, Scott has asked who we are by looking back to see who we were. The answers he finds can be as unsettling as they are true.
By James Scott
Harper. 357 pp. $25.99