4/10/2016. BOOK REVIEW: THE KEPT BY JAMES SCOTT
Several years I ago I stood on a red-rock mountain in Arches National Park, Utah, and looked across a vista of severe canyons and soaring rock formations, including amazing natural arches. The land was stark, but it was beautiful. In the same way, The Kept, a novel by James Scott, is beautiful. It’s not the kind of novel that welcomes you with warmth, but it takes your breath with its incisive characterizations and the harsh realities they reveal. The characters of The Kept expose the good and bad in all of us with crystal sharp clarity.
The Kept opens with Elspeth Howell arriving at her isolated home in upstate New York after months away working as a midwife. The year is 1897, and with no access to more sophisticated transportation, Elspeth is walking through deep snow. She knows things are terribly wrong when she sees no smoke above the house’s chimney nor light in the windows. No sounds from her five children break the silence of the snow.
To her horror, the house reveals the dead bodies of her husband and four of her children, all shot and lying where they fell in the midst of their daily routines. A scratching sound draws her to the pantry, but before she can open the door, a shotgun blast throws her back on the kitchen table. As she lies unconscious, her 12-year-old son, Caleb, creeps out of the pantry and discovers what he’s done.
In the days that follow, Caleb must nurse his mother, who he’s sure is going to die, while trying to keep the two of them warm and fed. He must also figure out how to dispose of the bodies since he can’t bury them in the frozen ground. He decides to burn them, and inadvertently burns down the house, so he and Elspeth must take refuge in the barn.
While waiting to see what happens to his mother, Caleb resolves to find the three men he saw murder his family and to destroy them. Rather than die, Elspeth slowly regains strength, and long before she is really able, she and Caleb set off to find the killers.
And thus begins a long and arduous journey. In a rough town where the killers may have been seen, Caleb works at a raucous brothel because it’s the kind of establishment he thinks the killers would frequent, and Elspeth masquerades as a man to secure a job to support them as they hunt. After some time in the town, Caleb learns that Elspeth has been there before in her work as a midwife, and questions begin to arise about Caleb’s relationship to a man in the town.
Skirmishes with people in the town and a terrible accident at the ice packing plant where Elspeth works create turmoil for mother and son, but always their goal is to find the men who killed their family. Long before the men’s whereabouts are learned, hints begin to leak out about why they went on their deadly mission. Wrapped up in those hints are more secrets about the origins of Caleb and his siblings and a sinful weakness that thrives in Elspeth.
Although Caleb and Elspeth have never been close, a fierce loyalty binds them together, even as their secrets and passions drive them apart. Their relationship is as jagged and tough as the landscape and story they inhabit.
James Scott has somehow managed to tell a story that repels and attracts at the same time. He’s taken all the cold, hard spikes of the human soul and polished them until they shine like diamonds. It’s a story you won’t forget.
On May 10, I’ll post an interview with the author, in which he talks about writing The Kept, the significance of the title, and other aspects of the novel.