This Week In My Classes: Keeping Up

autumn-leaves-2017I was looking back over some old posts in this series and November entries have a certain … similarity, shall we say! We’re all–students and faculty alike–tired, busy, and kind of gloomy. The introduction of a week-long break (coming next week for us) has not made as much difference as you might think: last year I was struck by how much more tired and behind a lot of my students seemed when classes started up again, and because the break also comes quite late in the month, we all felt a bit frantic after it because the end of classes was suddenly so close.

Right now, though, a week off from the regular routine of classes seems like something to look forward to. I’ll have plenty to do! I’ve got midterms, papers, and paper proposals coming in this week that I’d like to turn around as soon as possible, and that will be a lot easier without also doing class prep. I’m also a reader for a Ph.D. student who is defending her dissertation next Friday: rereading her thesis and working up questions for the defense will be a big (though rewarding) job. And just to make sure I’m making the absolute most of the week’s more flexible schedule, I’ve got a dentist appointment, a medical appointment, and a hair cut also scheduled!

rankinWe aren’t quite there yet, however: there’s still the rest of this week to get through. In Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just wrapped up our discussions of Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses. Although I think Knots and Crosses is gripping and clever, I’ve been wishing that I left The Terrorists in instead when I decided which book to cut to make room for An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, because its political engagement is in some ways more immediately relevant and its morality is more complicated. That said, Knots and Crosses offers a pretty direct engagement with what we now call “toxic masculinity.” Its Gothic games seemed a bit too pat to me this time, though–I don’t entirely disagree with Rankin’s own assessment of it as a bit too clever, a bit too much the self-conscious work of a young writer immersed in literary theory and history and eager to show off what he knew.

silas-marnerIn 19th-Century Fiction tomorrow we are finishing our time on Silas Marner. Because I have only taught Silas Marner once or twice before, and many years ago, I have been feeling my way a bit hesitantly, not being entirely certain which questions will catch students’ interests or draw them most naturally towards the novel’s big ideas or best moments. Oddly, perhaps, I’ve found it difficult precisely because the novel is so short, though I chose it hoping that its brevity would make George Eliot more accessible than usual. I dialed back the amount of context I provided at the outset, but even so it took up nearly one whole class, and that left us only three more to talk more freely about the novel. With Middlemarch, in contrast, I typically have at least three weeks’ worth of classes, or around nine hours, and we get even more time when I assign it in Close Reading. And yet three hours is actually plenty in some ways too: because not a great deal happens in Silas Marner just in terms of plot, I feel as if I have been struggling to work on the meaning of what does go on without repeating myself. Still, I think it has been OK overall. In fact, I have been pleased at both the quantity and the quality of participation in class discussion, which certainly suggests to me that they are finding the novel’s distinct combination of realism and moral fable engaging. We have already talked a fair amount about the importance of taking responsibility and making deliberate choices, rather than trusting to luck, fate, or God, as key to Eliot’s moral vision; tomorrow we will talk about this in the specific context of family, especially parenting, including both Silas’s choice to raise Eppie (in contrast to Godfrey’s actions) and Eppie’s choice to stay with Silas. I think this is the only one of Eliot’s novels that comes close to being unironically sentimental, at least in the main plot line–and it’s just so lovely.

Recently In My Classes: The Three Cs

kleenexThe three Cs are are Cold, Collins, and Chandler, and I am actually done with all of them now, but I haven’t blogged about my classes since they were all just starting up, so I thought it was time to get caught up. A trace of the first does remain in the form of a minor but lingering cough, but although I did end up having to cancel one day of lectures when I actually lost my voice for a bit, it wasn’t too bad. A number of my students and colleagues have been much sicker, poor things.

I wasn’t really sorry to wrap up our class time on either Chandler or Collins. My patience with both Philip Marlowe and his author was more limited than usual: all those slick similes are really no compensation for the misogyny and homophobia. I think I need to give In a Lonely Place a closer look to see if it would be a more palatable option for my sample of noifiction. Or perhaps someone would like to recommend a Hammett or Chandler novel (or another hard-boiled writer altogether) that they particularly admire for me to try out? Because I really don’t enjoy this genre enough to want to read widely in it before making a new selection.

collinsI also felt just a bit impatient with The Woman in White, though it is a lot more fun than The Big Sleep. At one point in our discussions this time a student actually asked a question I ask sometimes too about different novels, that could perhaps be summed up as “Are we giving this novel too much credit?” — or “Are we putting more interpretive weight on this novel’s details than they can really bear?” I feel that more with Lady Audley’s Secret (which I think is fundamentally incoherent, or indecisive, about some of its central thematic questions) than I do with The Woman in White, but I think it’s always a fair question to ask. It’s not one that I think can ever be answered definitively either way, but there’s no doubt that some novels seem less in control of their own meaning than others, while some can rather deflate under scrutiny. Some novels, too (as I ended up saying about The Woman in White, though not, if I remember correctly, to the same student) raise a lot of interesting questions or stir the pot in thought-provoking ways without necessarily resolving every aspect.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction we moved on to P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is one of my own personal favorites, partly because the confrontation it builds up to between Cordelia and Sir Ronald is about important ideas as much as about solving a crime. We had our last class on that Monday, and today we started Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses–and after that we have only two more novels and the term is done! It still feels as if we only just got started.

silas-marnerIn 19th-Century Fiction we are actually on our penultimate novel, Silas Marner. I’ve been a bit nervous about how it would go, as it starts out pretty slowly and Eliot’s prose requires closer attention than any of our other novelists’. I also haven’t taught it very often–only twice before that I can remember, and never in a lecture class of this sort. Today was “big picture” day so I set up some key ideas and then we began talking about Silas himself, first as he is seen by his neighbors in Raveloe and then as we come to understand him thanks to the narrator’s explanations and commentary. I tried to emphasize the importance of noticing the different ways people arrive at their explanations for what they see, which I think is key not just to the themes of the novel but also to its pacing, in which not much often seems to be happening but we realize, if we know to look for it, that a lot of the action is in perception and interpretation. One student brought up Silas’s beloved pot, which I thought was a particularly nice detail to have picked up on:

Yet even in this stage of withering a little incident happened, which showed that the sap of affection was not all gone. It was one of his daily tasks to fetch his water from a well a couple of fields off, and for this purpose, ever since he came to Raveloe, he had had a brown earthenware pot, which he held as his most precious utensil among the very few conveniences he had granted himself. It had been his companion for twelve years, always standing on the same spot, always lending its handle to him in the early morning, so that its form had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having the fresh clear water. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled against the step of the stile, and his brown pot, falling with force against the stones that overarched the ditch below him, was broken in three pieces. Silas picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart. The brown pot could never be of use to him any more, but he stuck the bits together and propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial.

It’s a strangely touching incident that got me thinking again about “Mrs Tulliver’s Teraphim” in The Mill on the Floss. We all need at least something to love, and the reasons we cherish something in particular are often bound up in our most inarticulate yearnings.

So that’s where we are! Snuffles aside, it hasn’t really been a bad term so far, as both courses are pretty familiar. I’ve been able to do some reading of my own, most recently Lincoln in the Bardo, and I just sent off a review of Claire Harman’s Murder By the Book, which was a pretty fun assignment. I’ll be consistently busy between now and the end of term, but not overwhelmingly so, and as I’m on sabbatical next term, I will be able to take a genuine break over the holidays.


“All were in sorrow”: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo


All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. [roger bevins iii]

It was the nature of things. [hans vollman]

Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. [roger bevins iii]

At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. [hans vollman]

We must try to see one another in this way. [roger bevins iii]

I realized Lincoln in the Bardo was going to work for me about a dozen pages in. The first little bit was hard going: who are these people? are they going to prattle and pontificate like this for the whole book? (By the end of the novel, I knew these two well enough to want them to stay, even though by then I also understood that it was better they should go.) Then the voices multiplied, and it was easier, if still disorienting; then we were at the party, and there were flower arrangements and “hives … filled with charlotte russe” and venison steaks; and then there was this:

Yet there was no joy in the evening for the mechanically smiling hostess and her husband. They kept climbing the stairs to see how Willie was, and he was not doing well at all. [Kunhartdt and Kunhardt, op. cit.]

A lot else goes on in Lincoln in the Bardo besides the illness, death, and interment of 11-year old Willie Lincoln.Saunders takes Lincoln’s mourning for his lost son and his own extraordinary, creative, phantasmagorical vision of the inhabitants in Willie’s new home, at once among and apart from the living, and builds up a powerful story about both historical particulars and human universals. Lincoln enters the Georgetown cemetery a man broken by grief; he is ultimately overtaken by what seems like an entire nation, with all its sins and aspirations and accomplishments and omissions. In the process we too take on a multitude of stories, no less powerful (to my ongoing surprise) for coming to us in fragments. The novel is a swirl of voices, but they are placed and paced so that the narrative accumulates momentum and gains rather than loses power from the juxtaposition of the drama in the cemetery with comments about the Lincolns and their loss from observers and historians.

lincoln-bardo-2It’s a bravura display of narrative ingenuity, and especially given how fantastical the premise is, the result could easily have been (and I fully expected it would be) flamboyant gimmickry, clever and original but soulless. It isn’t, though: I think Lincoln in the Bardo is actually one of the most touching and heartfelt novels I’ve read in years. However far it spirals away from reality, and however abstract its political or philosophical or historical implications become, it always comes back to the hardest and most intimate truth of all: nothing we love lasts. “None of it was real,” says roger bevins iii near the end:

nothing was real.

Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.

These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named then, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.

And now must lose them.

This is the reality Lincoln faces as he puts his beloved son in a box in a marble crypt and walks away (“imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way [in ‘Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Isabelle Perkins…]). “The president,” reports Mr. Samuel Pierce in his “private correspondence,”

turned away from the coffin, it appeared by sheer act of will, and it occurred to me how hard it must be for the man to leave his child behind in a place of such gloom and loneliness, which never, when responsible for the living child, he would have done.

“When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict”:

When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be? [Milland, op. cit.]

bardo-3Willie’s death is as much the occasion for Lincoln in the Bardo as its subject, and there are many other sorrows recorded in it–many losses as or even more wrenching, many deaths as arbitrary or worse, and many lives that before those deaths were more deprived, more isolated, than Willie’s, that never had the kind of love that brings his stricken father out into the dark, cold night to sit one last futile time with his son. The world is much bigger, and has much bigger problems, than little Willie. His Presidential father, for one thing, carries the burden of leadership alongside his personal responsibilities and feelings. Lincoln imagines his own grief multiplied by the thousands dying in the Civil War:

He is just one.

And the weight of it about to kill me.

Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I–

How should such personal suffering be weighed against the political and moral causes for which these boys are dying? “Did the thing merit it,” Lincoln wonders. “Merit the killing”:

On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?

Lincoln believes that there is an ideal, an aspiration, worth fighting for: “all of it, all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free.” “The thing,” he concludes, “would be won”; he leaves the cemetery with his resolve restored and, significantly, accompanied in spirit by someone whose sadness is a motive not for retreat but for battle:

Sir, if you are as powerful as I feel you are, and as inclined towards us as you seem to be, endeavor to do something for us, so that we might do something for ourselves. We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadline, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do. [thomas haven]

They ride “forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen,” their unity a hopeful symbol of common cause, an optimistic invocation of a better, if distant, future.

But Saunders never lets these big ideas overpower the simplicity and finality of death, which is what gives his novel its almost unbearable poignancy.  After all, whatever our unfinished business or our unfulfilled promise, no matter the strength of our loves or our hates, one day our wish for “the great mother-gift: Time. More time” will be refused. He does at least offer some consolation in his enumerations of the “things of the world,” things that are no less precious–that are perhaps even more so–for being impermanent:

Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth.

Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease. . . .

Geese above, clover below, the sound of one’s own breath when winded. . . .

Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.

In Brief: Kate Atkinson, Transcription

transcriptionI wasn’t looking forward to Transcription with quite as much enthusiasm of some readers I know, as my own history with Atkinson is a bit mixed. But I know her to be an excellent story teller, with smooth fast-paced prose and an eye for vivid detail and an ear for good dialogue, and the reason I have quibbled with some of her recent books is because I have found them interesting enough to take seriously and ultimately quarrel with.

So I began Transcription with reasonably high expectations–and, overall, I was disappointed. It is slick and snappy and well-researched and reasonably clever, but it didn’t strike me as going deep about anything, from its main character to the potentially profound themes spy fiction engages. Perhaps if I hadn’t finally started reading John Le Carré this year this last point would not have struck me so hard! The fixation on being clever that (for me) undermined A God in Ruins has taken over in Transcription, while the rich, tender humanity that made A God in Ruins so engrossing right until the end is entirely missing.

Transcription is clever, by which I mean deftly plotted–but even here it didn’t quite win me over, because the Big Twist™ (which seems, with Atkinson, to be becoming paradoxically predictable as a move) was not cleverly disguised, just withheld. It’s no great feat to simply spring something on your readers at the end! (And perhaps if I hadn’t just finished going through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with my class and showing all the places where in fact you could have discerned the truth from early on if  you were really being suspicious enough, then this point would not have been so clear to me in its turn.) I found Transcription a diverting read, don’t get me wrong. But unlike both Life After Life and A God in Ruins, which were both so nearly so very, very good that I found their flaws greatly provoking, now that I’ve finished Transcription I can’t gin up enough interest in it to go into any more detail about it.

“Centuries of People”: Sarah Moss, Cold Earth


Mass graves again. I realised I was holding my breath and tried to exhale.

‘You wouldn’t get mass graves with all these isolated farms,’ said Jim. ‘And there are a few where whole families have been found in the beds or around the house.’

My hand shook. ‘Can we stop talking about epidemics, please? I’m going to the loo.’

I put my trowel down and stood up. Everything went black and I stood there, trying to remember how to breathe. It’s like driving, breathing. The more you think about how to do it, the harder it gets. I stepped blindly over the fallen walls and looked down at my pink tent and thought about the books inside it. I could hear the running river and the wind over the tall grass outside the hall, where centuries of people throwing things out made the soil rich and the wild plants strong.

I’ve basically been reading through Sarah Moss’s oeuvre in reverse order. The first books of hers I read were Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost ChildrenAlthough I admired them a lot, my enthusiasm was tempered by their emotional reticence. Still, I was interested enough to read on, which meant going through Moss’s back catalog, which I have found very rewarding. With Cold Earth (2009), her first novel, I have now completed that project–and in a way it feels like coming full circle, because her most recent novel, Ghost Wall, engages with some of the same themes, particularly ways in which the stories we tell about the past haunt or infect the way the think about the present.

ghost-wallCold Earth literalizes that haunting in a way that Ghost Wall doesn’t quite: in the newer novel, the spirits animated by artifacts of the past are those of contemporary people acting on what they think they’ve learned, while in Cold Earth Moss teases and frightens her characters and her readers with the possibility that the dead still move among us. Imagination? Delusion? Projection? Perhaps–but to at least one member of the team digging in their remote archaeological site on the coast of Greenland, it is a near certainty that their work has disturbed something more than relics and bones.

The discomfort that spreads from her conviction that they are not alone is exacerbated by the team’s growing unease about current events: during their rare check-ins online, they follow reports of a spreading contagion. “The virus,” one of them reports early on: “they think it’s mutated and it seems to be spreading.” “It’s spread,” they learn a little later; “Several thousand people in the Washington area, another cluster in Charleston and a scattering of outbreaks up the East Coast.” Then it’s in the UK — and then the websites stop loading, and they can’t get the satellite phone to work. Is it just technical problems, or has the crisis debilitated the human agencies still needed to keep servers  up and running? How worried should they be, and should they be upset or relieved that, in their isolation, they are probably safe from infection? Then when the plane that was supposed to collect them doesn’t arrive, their remote location ceases to be a refuge and what had been largely a matter of psychological endurance becomes a struggle to survive the encroaching winter and the depletion of their resources.

cold-earth-2Cold Earth is intense and suspenseful, but it is not a thriller or a horror novel, or (except indirectly) a dystopian one. Moss focuses above all on her characters–the novel is told by several of them in turn, in the form of letters they write to people back home–as they puzzle over their finds and try to interpret how their predecessors in that location lived and died. Each of them has brought a personal history to Greeenland: each of them, in a way, is like an archaeological site of a different kind, and there is something at once comforting and devastating in the way Moss, by setting them down among the ruins of a past community, evokes the inevitable and unpredictable continuity of death. Most of us probably imagine that “history” is something that happens to other people, but by the end of Cold Earth all of its characters have been forced to see they too will eventually be the ones in the ground. The chilling question the novel provokes is whether there will be anybody left to dig them up and wonder about their lives.

This Week In My Classes: Corpses and Consciences

ackroydIn Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just wrapped up our discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It’s been an interesting fall to be teaching this course. I always open it with some discussion of the differences between “literary” and genre fiction–not just what those differences are presumed to be but how they shape people’s expectations and evaluations of books on either side of the supposed divide. I imagine, however, that to students already accustomed to a literature curriculum that incorporates not just popular culture but a wide range of media (we have courses on both Chaucer and comics, on Shakespeare as well as Tolkien, on poetry and on television and video games) it sometimes seems as if in advocating for the intellectual gravitas of our course material I am arguing against a straw man.

keating-marpleThis term, however, both Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail and Luke Brown in the TLS stepped up to show my students in real time that the debates about the literary merits of crime fiction are ongoing and can be both intense and judgmental. Wente published an op-ed decrying the degradation of our curriculum–yes, ours in particular: she singled out Dalhousie’s English department and Mystery & Detective Fiction was among the courses she specifically mentioned as symptoms of our decline. (I won’t link to Wente’s column, because I don’t want her bad faith and shoddy practices rewarded with clicks, but here’s a link to a tweet showing the letter I wrote to the editors in response to it.)  Brown, in his turn, wrote a rather grudging review of Belinda Bauer’s Snap, which was (regrettably, in his opinion) long-listed for the Booker Prize. Not satisfied with explaining why he didn’t think highly of Snap in particular, Brown drew broader conclusions about mysteries as a necessarily lesser form of fiction. As part of my commentary on Christie, I also quoted Peter Keating’s 2018 book Agatha Christie and Shrewd Miss Marple (which I reviewed myself for the TLS), in which he observes tartly at the outset that Christie is “hugely read, greatly loved, widely admired, and critically ignored” — a situation his own book, of course, sets out to correct.

I bring these “show and tell” materials into class because I think it is valuable for students to see that our work has resonance and relevance outside the classroom. These are debates that are actually going on “out there”–though not always, as Wente’s column exemplifies, to a very high standard. She is not well-informed, but they will be, and I hope this helps them see that there is both a place and a need outside the university for what they are learning–not so much the assigned content of the course as the nature of the conversation we’re having about it.

the-wardenIn 19th-Century Fiction we’ve just finished our work on The Warden. I’ve written a couple of times already about why Trollope feels unexpectedly pertinent to our current moment, whether as a respite from or a tacit commentary on its crises. Working on The Warden during Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS hearings was … well, disorienting. Could there be a sharper contrast between meek Mr. Harding–who, faced for the first time with a challenge to the privilege he has so enjoyed (and, by some lights, done such amiable good with), resigns rather than live at odds with his now-provoked conscience–and Kavanaugh, who ranted and raved in outrage at the very idea that he should be investigated thoroughly, never mind held accountable, for any past misconduct? When John Bold rather sheepishly tells Mr. Harding that he is launching a legal inquiry that may prove damaging, the Warden replies, “if you act justly, say nothing in this matter but the truth, and use no unfair weapons in carrying out your purposes, I shall have nothing to forgive.” Then, even after he is assured that Bold’s complaint will fail and there is no legal or regulatory reason for him to give up his contested position, Mr. Harding is not satisfied, because “he was not so anxious to prove himself right, as to be so.”

trollope-wardenThe Warden is an odd little book, and in many respects it is hardly a radical one. As we discussed in class, for instance, the bedesman who speak up for what they think is theirs by right are characterized as greedy and ungrateful, and they are ultimately punished for it, ending up worse off both economically and emotionally than they were under Mr. Harding’s wardenship. The novel’s social vision is fundamentally paternalistic. There is something at least potentially radical, though, about its ethical vision–about its casting as a modern-day hero someone who, when criticized, does not lash out but turns inward, and who then will not be dissuaded even by the most powerful people around him into ignoring what his conscience decides is right. Mr. Harding’s resignation does not really fix anything: the novel explores at several levels the complicated relationship between individuals and larger systems and institutions, and in doing so it raises timely questions about the possibility of meaningful moral agency in corrupt circumstances. I think a lot of us are struggling with this right now: the things we can do on our own seem so insufficient that it is tempting to stop trying to do anything. There’s some encouragement to us in the vicarious satisfaction we get from seeing the Warden persist. Even Archdeacon Grantly, imposing bully that he is, is ultimately no match for him! We all probably face a version of the Archdeacon’s exasperated “Good heavens!” sometimes, maybe especially when we try to take some small, imperfect, corrective action of our own. The Warden is not about taking to the barricades–but most of us aren’t going to do that anyway. Mr. Harding might at least inspire us to play our imaginary cellos with renewed vigor as we carry on living our own ethically complicated lives as best we can.

“A Cuckoo in the Nest”: Hannah Kent, The Good People


This is not my son, Johanna had said.

And at once Nóra, her heart fluttering at his screams, saw that the boy was not, could not be the child she had seen in her daughter’s cabin. Her eyes began to water, and she saw plainly the puckish strangeness that people had been speaking of. All those months she had thought there was a shadow of Johanna about the boy, a familiarity that anchored him to her. Martin had seen it, had loved him for it. But now, Nóra knew that nothing of Johanna ran through this child’s blood. It was like Tadgh said. She had not recognised him as her own because there was nothing of her family in the creature. He was a cuckoo in the nest.

Hannah Kent’s The Good People immerses us in a world in which life is hard, illness and death are familiar, and superstition (or lore, or folk wisdom) rules. At the center of the novel is Nóra, a widow left responsible for the care of her dead daughter’s son Micheál. Once to all appearances a healthy child, Micheál has become weak, inarticulate, fretfully miserable; he screams and wails all night and needs constant vigilance and care, including bathing as he incessantly wets and fouls himself. Looking after him is wearing Nóra out:

She felt suffocated by the constant neediness of her grandchild. He made her uneasy. The night before she had tried to encourage him to walk, holding him up so that his feet brushed the ground. But he had thrown his red head back, exposing the pale length of his throat and the sharp ridges of his collarbone, and screamed as though she was pressing pins into his heels.

“Perhaps,” she wonders, “she ought to fetch the doctor again,” but she has gone that troublesome and expensive route before and been told there was nothing the doctor could do for Micheál. “In the valley the sick were faced with the usual crossroads of priest, blacksmith, or graveyard,” she concludes–“Or Nance.”

kent-good-people-2Nance is a a healer and “handy woman” (midwife) who offers herbal cures and charms and other services to the local people. She believes (as do most of her neighbors) in the presence and power of the ‘Good People’ or fairies. Kent takes her time establishing how pervasive and powerful this belief is, distinguishing it from casual “superstition” and working to convey what the world looks and feels like to people imbued with convictions about threatening supernatural beings with designs on them–the effort they go to warding off misfortune and illness, the fear of missing a crucial sign or step that might have ominous consequences in their lives. “Sure, ’tis a dangerous time for a woman when she’s carrying,” Nance warns a man who comes seeking her help to protect his pregnant wife:

‘Tis a time of interference. Your wife is on a threshold and can be pulled back and forth. Either into the world we know, or the one we don’t. And ’tis true, what you say about the Good People. They are much given to taking young women. I’ve never known a woman to be swept into the fairy ráth by here, but ’tis not to say they won’t or haven’t.

The anxious husband hangs on her every word. “All will be well,” she assures him, “if you do as I say,” and her advice includes doing all the chores so his wife can rest, giving him “bittersweet” berries to “urge her into a deeper sleep,” and making a “cross from birth twigs” to nail over the bed to guard her.

Nance seems a benign figure at first, utterly sincere in her beliefs and selflessly dedicated to the well-being of others; we are on her side against the skepticism of the new local priest, who opposes her practices as irreligious. The stakes are raised, however, after she is called in by Nóra to help with Micheál. Nóra is convinced, and Nance confirms, that her daughter’s son was stolen by the fairies and replaced with a changeling; the only way to bring the real Micheál back is to drive out the usurper, and with the reluctant cooperation of the girl Nóra has hired to help with  Micheál’s care, she and Nance undertake a series of measures guaranteed, Nance insists, to bring this about.

Kent depicts the effects of their efforts on Micheál with ruthless vividness. If we haven’t already wondered if, for all her sincerity and good intentions, Nance might do more harm than good, now we are brought face to face with what, under a different explanatory framework, looks simply and horribly like child abuse. They administer foxglove, for example, which causes convulsions:

He shook in their grip like a rabid dog, his mouth rent open in a terrifying gape, arms rod-straight and trembling, and his head shaking from side to side as though in terror of what was being done to him.

They swing the child–wet from being dunked in a bath of steeped foxglove, freezing from the night air–back and forth, calling “If you’re a fairy, away with you!” When this treatment fails to restore the “real” Micheál to his body, Nance leads them to the river, where they plunge the “fairy-child” repeatedly into the rushing cold water: “She had the sense that the changeling fixed her eye as the water flooded over his face for the third time, bubbles streaming from his mouth.” Finally Mary, the young servant, rebels: “As soon as he saw we were on our way to your cabin,” she tells Nance, “he started up with the screaming,” which Nance explains easily – “the wee changeling doesn’t want to be going back under the hill!” “‘Tis a sin!” Mary cries out as Nance prepares to dunk the screaming child again, but Nóra and Nance are resolute, and as they hold Micheál under the water Nance finally sees that “the river had taken the fairy as one of its own.”

kent-good-people-3My attention had been flagging a bit before the women’s efforts to cure Micheál picked up the pace of the novel; I wasn’t sure we needed quite so much time and detail spent on context, on evoking the place and time (Ireland in the 1820s) and people’s lives without much action. In retrospect, I understand better why Kent balanced the elements of her novel the way she did: we need to arrive at Micheál’s treatment / torture prepared to counter the visceral horror it evokes against the truth she has set up, which is that to the women involved it is not abuse or cruelty but a good faith attempt to save a child they genuinely believe has been stolen by the fairies. The novel is not set up (as, for instance, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is) as a contest between competing belief systems, much less an interpretive challenge to us about which version of events to believe, the ‘rational’ or the supernatural. We do end up at a trial in which both Nance and Nóra are held accountable in ways that run completely contrary to their version. Though it is hard not to agree with the prosecution that they have done a terrible thing, Kent has made sure we see their actions as reasonable and justifiable to them.

What’s less clear is whether that is supposed to push us towards a kind of historical or cultural relativism, putting aside our condemnation on the grounds that they can’t be blamed for not having modernized, for acting as their whole community believe is reasonable under the circumstances. It’s true there is some dissent within that community–from the priest, but also from others who are not newcomers, who look at Micheál and see a “cretin” rather than a changeling, a sick child in need of care rather than an interloper to be expelled. Perhaps their opposition is meant to set Nance and Nóra up for judgment, but the affect of The Good People is mostly against that: Micheál’s suffering is vivid but so too is Nóra’s grief, and Nance’s increasingly desperate conviction that she’s doing the right thing. I would be more excited about the novel if it had been structured more overtly around these intellectual questions rather than mostly just depicting the setting and letting events play out–if Kent had framed Nóra’s story, perhaps, with the trial that results and integrated some narrative commentary that deliberately centered the dilemma of judgment and questions about whether change is the same as progress. I like my historical fiction with a side of exposition; I want not only historical colour but ideas about history, not left mostly implicit (as they are in this case) but as part of the novel’s apparatus. Still, The Good People ended up being a powerful and moving story: I’m glad I persisted with it, and I’m going to be haunted by Micheál’s pale face and sad fate for a long time.