Book Review

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What an extraordinary piece of writing–though not one for easy reading when you’re tired, or for passing the time in an airport while waiting for a flight. The prose is creative and skillful, and the plot keeps you on your toes, no question–though its twists and turns are often not easy to follow. The book centers around the residents of an old house in Western Massachusetts, from the period just before the Revolution to the present day. Counting the various subplots is useless, since one fades into another, in mostly chronological order. The subplots are also interwoven, very subtly. This is an author who leaves it to the reader to figure out what is what.

There are short poems scattered through the chapters, and interesting illustrations whose meaning is often cryptic and requires study. The image circulating through, from the first page to the last, is that of a catamount, or wild cat. It’s hard to tell whether the animal is fact or fiction; it merges from one to the other. The same is true of the main characters: sometimes they seem real and later seem supernatural; the reader has to be willing to suspend disbelief, as the poet Keats famously once said. The book is set in New England, and there is a definite New England color in the descriptions of the house and its surroundings. Many place names will be familiar to Suffield readers.

The house itself undergoes many transitions, from a humble cabin in the woods to a modern large and lavishly renovated home. Some of its residents love it, others find it hateful. It is the site of all sorts of activities, from a deadly Indian raid early on, to an apple orchard producing “Osgood’s Wonder;” from a sheep farm to the dwelling of a runaway slave and her baby; from the basis of a homosexual liaison to seances meant to drive out unwelcome ghosts; from a strange mother/son relationship to the curiosity of an amateur historian and to the arrival of a diabetic tree lover. Some chapters are written in the first person, others in the third.

It’s hard to imagine how these can all be made to fit together, but they do. And running through everything else are beautiful descriptions of many forms of nature encountered by the characters and many references to genuine historic events. It’s not a quick and easy book; you have to pay attention as you go, but it’s one well worth the energy it requires.

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