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The Housekeeper

If you liked Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and cannot wait for his next novel to appear, may I recommend The Housekeeper, by Melanie Wallace. Both books demonstrate the power of pitch-perfect prose to make bleak stories gripping. The sense of doom that hangs over Cold Mountain comes, of course, from the Civil War; in The Housekeeper, it is a byproduct, as it were, of poverty and isolation. The surest way to repel you would be to outline Ms Wallace's story, or even to sketch its point of departure. That is something that only she can do, and she has done it with extraordinary skill. Here's something from the dust jacket:

With an unforgettable case of characters and gorgeous, piercing prose, The Housekeeper is at once a poetic meditation on landscape and a page-turning thriller.

True statements, I can attest. I have also found a passage that's quotable because it's a flashback. All you need to know, I think, is that Jamie is 17, Galen 34, and Margaret somewhere in her 80s. It is early 1977.

Galen watched Jamie, her back to him, pull on a T-shirt, a sweater over it, and slip into the jeans with the flag stitched upside down on their backside. Margaret had called them Jamie's Fourth of July jeans, and Galen smiled to himself at the recollection, of Margaret telling him that Jamie had asked her whether she was going to Dyers Corner for the Bicentennial celebration, recounting that the question pushed what Margaret had called all the wrong buttons. I said to her, Margaret told Galen, that wild horses could not drag me to celebrate any such thing, given that the founding fathers were undoubtedly not to mention rightly turning in their graves because they knew should they rise from the dead they wouldn't even recognize this country as the one they'd conceived, whose principles had been if not forgotten at the very least twisted and thwarted. For this nation has wrecked far too many lives - I gave her Cuba and the embargo, I gave her Chile and Allende, Argentinean and Bolivia and Uruguayan dictators, half of Central America, I gave her Vietnam and almost sixty thousand Americans dead and three million dead Vietnamese, I gave her Savak - and committed far too many travesties in the name of fighting communism, the only reference I made because I assumed she'd heard of it, for me to stomach. No matter if, a couple of years ago, we got rid of a criminal president - who was immediately pardoned, so much for the concept of and justice for all in a lawless land - nothing's changed. For somewhere along the way we became a people with an attention span about as long as my pinkie who developed a talent for imperfect recall, which is as bad as no recall at all. And all the while I'm ranting, she's perfectly composed, not a hint of agreement or disagreement to her expression, nothing in her posture hints that I'm making her uncomfortable, nothing to reveal I might be getting through to her. So, in the end, assuming I'd assumed incorrectly, assuming she'd never heard of Cuba or Chile or even Vietnam, I told her that the flotillas and fireworks in this feel-good spectacle were not going to grace Dyers Corner anyway, which would have, at best, its customary paltry parade of flagwavers. And, I added, no floats. At which point, so composed as almost to be indifferent, she said to me: I was just - that just, Margaret interjected - thinking it'd be nice to eat some hot dogs.

Galen had grinned then, shaken his head, asked: So, did you go with her?

Given that remark, Margaret told him, of course I did. And it was lovely, the best thing not being the parade, which she watched very attentively, or even the dogs, but the fact that she wore those jeans with the upside-down flag. Which didn't quite cause a stir but didn't go unnoticed, either.

Jamie, Galen said. Margaret was fond of those jeans.

By this point, you know that Jamie's thinking about hot dogs because she only ate them in her home economics class, while she could still attend high school.

I'm not sure where The Housekeeper takes place. I thought it was in upper New England until Galen and Jamie crossed a timber line.* I thought of New England because the story is set in the environs of a Depression-Era reservoir, one that flooded the home of Jamie's maternal grandmother, and because there are old mill towns not far away. New England makes sense, too, because pockets of failure and desolation pit the remoter corners of the Northeast. At one level, The Housekeeper is about a wilderness absolutely indifferent to human aspiration, but at another it is about the tremendous risk that many Americans run of not being able to take care of themselves. Up close, we find the absolute bottom edge of humanity, in the person of a wild boy who can't speak and who can only function by pillaging. Like the wilderness, he cannot even imagine pity, and he is equally persistent, surviving disaster after disaster. On the first page, Jamie comes upon him, tied to a tree; on the second, she unties him. This seems to be no more than an act of decent sympathy. But her sympathy is misplaced, because the boy (ever nameless) does not have the normal correlative parts with which to sympathize. He is not so much evil as massively inadequate. And there does not seem to be any attempt to protect him from himself or from others. There is no civic presence on the banks of this reservoir. Galen, it is true, has had an encounter with a kindly judge - but he has gone to prison nonetheless for a crime that he did not commit. State police and sheriffs are mentioned, but we never see them, and no one seriously expects them to be helpful. The United States has indeed - as Margaret insists only to hear us dismiss her rant as exaggeration - failed in this locale.

To put it another way, the United States is an idea that has slipped from Ms Wallace's territory, leaving only more or less capable human beings in a harsh landscape.

Jamie stopped at an abandoned quarry that broke the forested monotony of the mountainside, its massive length scablike and jagged as an old wound unhealed upon the earth. Unhealed and unhealing, for not bush nor tree nor brush had taken root in that jumble of stone and pit and tailing piles beneath the smoothed, worked ledges that rose and jutted dark and evenly through the snowfall, fanging long icicles. The going was rough, her ankles rubbed raw, the snowshoes so cumbersome that she at one point took them off only to sink to her knees in the snow and exhaust herself by trying to push on without them. And then she strapped them on again, went on following Galen's trail. Which was filling with a fine thin snow that came down heavily now, heavier than she'd ever known any drizzle to fall, and though she was loath to pause - afraid she might lose Galen's trail by day's end, if it took so long, fearing to that his trail might go on for days - she needed to catch her breath, rest. She walked to the ledge an broke off a long icicle to suck, for the snow she had eaten along the way did nothing to quench her thirst. She put a piece of ice in her mouth, looked back for the first time, saw the old quarry road whiteslash a long contour behind her, was awed by how Galen had always appeared or disappeared by that pumphouse at any time of day as though he were only a stroll away. Which he was not.

The Housekeeper is not a long book, at 300 smallish pages, but it is a very big one, and it bears its weight with uncommon grace. Without sounding any trumpets, Ms Wallace makes heroes of her principals, and we are as breathtaken by their exploits as we are forgiving of their faults. Shortly past the half-way point, you will find that you cannot put it down; when it ends, you will be sad but exalted. (May 2006)

* I'm aware of tree lines in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire and on Mount Katahdin in Maine.

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