Whately author James Scott wins critics’ praise with his dark debut novel, ‘The Kept’

Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014
ANYONE tempted to romanticize America’s rural past as a time of close-knit families and sturdy values would do well to read James Scott’s “The Kept.” In this dark and brooding debut novel, a small town in the 1890s plays host to a story of guilt, violence, revenge, and innocence lost, and a bleak winter landscape becomes a metaphor for the sinfulness of humankind.

It seems a fitting setting, in one sense, for a book that Scott, of Whately, worked long and hard on: He says he first conceived of the novel’s broad concept as a college student and then spent close to nine years working on the manuscript, wondering at times if he’d finish.

But Scott has put his winters of labor well behind him. “The Kept,” published in January by Harper Collins, has earned excellent reviews, from The New York Times to The Washington Post to The Boston Globe, and during the past two months Scott has been crisscrossing the country to do readings and interviews. The book’s success, including being named Amazon’s Book of the Month for January, has left him pleased and grateful, but also a little overwhelmed.

“I was hoping for some good reviews, but I didn’t know what to expect,” Scott, 37, said during a recent interview in the Whately home he shares with his wife, Taylor. The couple moved to the area from Boston in 2012 when she took a job in communications with Mount Holyoke College’s Alumnae Association.

“I was just so happy to finish and see it published. ... I couldn’t be happier now that it’s had a good reception.”

Critics have praised Scott’s narrative, his measured writing and the ominous mood he creates — a sense that life is harsh and that sins must be paid for. Set in 1897 in western New York state, the novel wastes no time putting those themes in motion. On the first page, Elspeth Howell, a mother of five, trudges through heavy snow to her family’s small, remote farm, returning from a long stint working as a midwife in a distant town.

Elspeth carries gifts for her children and her husband, Jorath, as well as a heavy burden of secrets and guilt. She knows she is “a sinner ... her transgressions lay in the hollow of her chest, hard and heavy as stone. The multitude of her sins — anger, covetousness, thievery — created a tension in her body, and all that could ease the pressure was movement.”

When she reaches her home, Elspeth has to wonder if God has demanded payment from her: She finds four of her children and her husband shot dead, their house riddled with bullet holes through which the cold wind blows. Only her son Caleb, 12, has survived the massacre and, hidden in the pantry, he accidently shoots his mother, thinking she is one of the killers returned to find him.

Elspeth survives the blast from Caleb’s shotgun, and mother and son, who do not know each other well, leave their ruined homestead to search for the murderers. Their journey, across a snowbound landscape that seems almost empty of people, takes them to a rough town on the shores of Lake Erie, where Elspeth’s checkered past will begin to catch up with her and Caleb will have to grow up fast — and where mother and son will come to a reckoning of just who they really are in relation to one other.

Northern Gothic

Born in Boston, Scott spent most of his early childhood years in Longmeadow until his family moved to Albany, N.Y., when he was about 10. His grandparents lived in Syracuse and his family later bought a summer house on the Saint Lawrence River, along the Canadian border, and he has vivid memories of New York’s wooded, thinly populated northern regions and their heavy snows and gray winter skies.

Scott was also intrigued with Southern Gothic literature, and he’d pass the time during long family drives reading the works of writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. Looking out at the passing woods had a subliminal effect of sorts on him; years later, he says, he came to imagine Southern Gothic transported to the north.

“I think that was, in a way, where the novel began,” Scott said. “I’d never been to the South at that point of my life — [the North] was the only place I could picture the book being set.”

He’d written stories for years, and his interest in fiction, and in screenwriting, deepened when he studied literature and creative writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He later wrote for various music publications, taught creative writing at a Boston literary center, and went to graduate school at Emerson College (also in Boston), where he began working seriously on “The Kept.”

Though his original image for the story was simply a boy wiping snow off his sister’s face, Scott broadened the plot to include a mother who has secrets and an era in which the modern industrial world has begun bumping up against the older rural one.

“I wanted to set [the novel] at a time when things are on the verge of speeding up,” he said. “You see the modern world coming along in cities, but in the more rural areas, life goes on pretty much the way it has, and information doesn’t get out.”

Indeed, there’s a reference to President William McKinley in the novel, but in the town of Watersbridge, where Caleb and Elspeth have come in search of vengeance, there’s no trace of the United States as a burgeoning industrial power. People trudge through the muddy streets on foot or horseback, men carve huge blocks of ice from Lake Erie with manual tools, and wood stoves and gas lamps provide heat and light.

The clouds that hang over Lake Erie and the frequent snow squalls they unleash are almost characters unto themselves, a constant, brooding presence that’s part of a narrative driven by what The Washington Post calls 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.”

Scott immersed himself in research materials to get the right feel for the period, reading old Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail order catalogs and newspapers from the era and studying the history of ice cutting. But he also struggled to find information that would illuminate midwifery practices from the 1800s.

“At one point I was saying to myself, ‘Why didn’t I try to write a book about something I knew, like baseball?’ ” he said with a laugh. By chance he got help from a woman, a friend of a friend, who was a midwife and had studied past techniques: “She helped me get the scenes right and showed me what I could get away with.”

Force of nature

There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s novels in “The Kept,” and not just because Watersbridge seems something like a raw Western town transported to the Northeast. Violence, or the possibility of it, seems ever-present — not in a gratuitous way, but as an elemental force of nature, or perhaps something fundamental to the American experience.

Caleb gets a job sweeping floors in a bordello and saloon where he’s gone thinking he might find a link to his family’s killers. Gunshots regularly ring out at night in the building, and in the morning bodies are unceremoniously dumped outside in the snow. The bordello’s owner, the oily London White, appears to be the most powerful and feared man in town, and he takes a strange liking to Caleb.

Meanwhile, Elspeth cuts her hair and disguises herself as a man; some of her past crimes have taken place in the town, and she fears being recognized. She takes a job with the ice company on the shores of Lake Erie, and as she studies the other men so that she can mimic their posture, she finds their appearance disturbing: “Every man’s face possessed some kind of threat, some shade of darkness.”

Violence can come in the form of disaster, too. In one of the book’s most vivid scenes, “a crack like a gunshot echo[es] across the lake” as huge blocks of ice tumble from a stack in the icehouse: “Between and among them lay the dozens of men who had been unfortunate enough to work in their shadow. ... Arms and legs sprouted between shards of ice, as if mountains had sprung up without warning and trapped men in their rocky surface.”

Elspeth feels she’s failed Caleb as a mother — and that her crimes have unleashed the bloodshed against her family. Seeking atonement, she buys her son a small wooden pony — “I know you must miss the animals of the barn” she tells him — and Caleb at first is pleased. But later that same evening he disobeys his mother, leaving the spartan hotel room they’ve taken and casting aside the toy: “He could not be changed into a boy again for the convenience of his mother.”

Yet “The Kept” is not all darkness. The book has its humane characters, and in flashbacks to the life Caleb’s family led before the shootings, Scott sketches scenes that, if not idyllic, are at least a contrast to the bleak tableau of Watersbridge. More to the point, he says, the book also looks at resilience and forgiveness — and as it moves toward its haunting conclusion, Caleb and his mother grow closer, and Elspeth comes clean about the strange compulsions that have governed her life.

“I didn’t want to just torture these characters,” he said. “It’s also a story about compassion and empathy, about trying to atone for your mistakes.”

Scott is writing a second novel, set in the modern world, though he says he’s had a hard time working on it recently because the promotional work for “The Kept” has tired him out.

“But I guess that’s a good kind of tired,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.