Monday, March 23, 2015

Book review, with historical notes: A Slant of Light, by Jeffrey Lent

A somber and breathtaking Hardyesque vision of a little-known American past, Lent’s newest epic unfolds with the assured timelessness of a classic. The setting is New York’s Finger Lakes region, a land of agrarian bounty where peculiar religious movements once took root.

Mystery surrounds the murders of Amos Wheeler and his lover, Bethany Hopeton, by her husband, Malcolm, after he returns from the Civil War. It’s not easy for anyone, Malcolm especially, to cope with his dreadful act.

Also affected are Harlan, the Hopetons’ hired boy, and August, a caring man who shelters Harlan and his sister. Several interlocking secrets (Why does Harlan remain loyal to Malcolm? What was Bethany’s true nature?) are skillfully untangled both by looking backward and moving ahead.

There’s an overabundance of detail on farming, but many sentences demand rereading for their sheer beauty, and each love story—some tragic, others newly born—has a poignant emotional charge. Lent offers eloquent insight into what makes his characters tick, yet enough unknowns remain to keep the novel unpredictable through the final pages.

Jeffrey Lent's A Slant of Light will be published in early April by Bloomsbury USA (hardcover, $27, 368pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's February 15th issue.

Some other notes:

More specifically, the novel takes place in Yates County, New York, in the 1860s.  If Lent's characters were real, they could have known my ancestors, who settled in the region in the early 1800s and were still living there during the Civil War.  I've visited in person, and it's beautiful country.

The hilly farmland of Italy, New York, on a hazy day in August 2001; photo by me

Many towns and villages of Yates County have colorful names with interesting histories, among them Milo, Jerusalem, Dundee, Penn Yan, and Italy, which sits across the county line from the town of Naples in Ontario County.

When you do genealogy research in an area, you get to know what records exist and where, the layout of the towns, people's traditional occupations, churches, and naming traditions... but you don't always absorb the cultural history in detail.  In that sense, I'm grateful to Lent's novel for giving me further perspective on a truly fascinating slice of history and breathing life into it.

There are references throughout the novel to someone called the Public Friend, a religious figure whose beliefs still provide guidance on daily living, even decades after her death. The Kirkus reviewer called her "a female divine clearly modeled on the Shakers’ Mother Ann Lee." While it's true that her teachings were shaped by those of Ann Lee, she isn't fictional.

The Public Friend—who was also called the Universal Friend—is a historical figure who influenced religious thought in New England, Pennsylvania, and western New York in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  An evangelical preacher, her birth name was Jemima Wilkinson, although she didn't answer to that name after a near-fatal illness and her subsequent religious awakening.  After some wanderings, in 1794 she and her followers settled in a hamlet she called "the new Jerusalem."

The Yates County Office of Public History has much more on her and the utopian community she founded.  Upstate New York was the crucible for many early American reform movements, some better known than others, and it was a treat to see one of them depicted in a new work of fiction.

8 comments:

  1. Sounds an unusual read

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The setting isn't one I've seen before - and the overlap with my family's history was a happy coincidence, since the novel was assigned to me for review.

      Delete
  2. You had me at "Hardyesque"! I'm adding this title to my to-read list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love Hardy's novels, and so much about this one reminded me of his style - the themes of love and tragedy, the characters' relationships with the land, the language. And the characters' names were unique and fit the place and period, too.

      Delete
  3. Yep, I'm with Clarissa - Hardyesque is all I need to know!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Another Hardy enthusiast - great!

      Delete
  4. It's always cool to find a story that takes place in an area where your ancestors lived. This one sounds like it has enough different themes to keep a book club busy for a while!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I'd agree with that. There is a lot worth discussing! The publisher has some book club questions on their website, though for anyone who plans to read the book, I'd suggest waiting until it's finished. There be spoilers :)

      Delete