It is the winter of 1897 and Elspeth is struggling through a snowstorm in upstate New York. She has been working in a distant town and now, burdened with food and gifts for her family, she trudges through the snow with several months wages hidden in to toes of her shoes. When she tops the last ridge before home, she hopes to see her family waiting for her. Instead, she sees the lifeless bodies of five children in the front yard.
When she reaches the house, she rushes to her bedroom where she finds her husband’s bullet-riddled body. The only child missing is Caleb, a 12-year-old boy who has taken to staying in the barn with the livestock at night. Elspeth rushes to the barn in the hope that Caleb has survived. He has. Caleb witnessed the murders of his brother and sisters, and now, terrified that the killers might return for him, he crouches behind a closed door with an Ithica, double-barreled shotgun. When Elspeth opens the door, he fires.
Although Elspeth’s wounds are grievous, they are not fatal, and Caleb manages to treat her wounds. Slowly, haltingly, Elspeth learns some vague details about the attack. Three armed men, all with distinctive red scarves, killed Elspeth’s husband and all of the children.
In the terrible days following the massacre, Caleb burns the house, cremating the dead. As the farm animals starve, Caleb and Elspeth decide to abandon the barn and undertake a trek through a daunting frozen wilderness in the hope of finding help. As this painful journey progresses, the reader learns a series of surprising facts. None of the children are Elspeth’s. In actual fact, the children have all been “stolen.”
Since Elspeth is unable to have children, she has decided to seek work that will make her a kind of surrogate mother. She begins working as a midwife, a job that brings her into contact with newborns, many of which are unwanted. By working for doctors, Elspeth manages to earn wages that support her “family.” In addition, she sometimes discovers her work provides her with opportunities to “steal” babies. Elspeth simply vanishes into the night and leaves no clue as to who she is and where she has gone. In this manner, she has acquired a family.
As Elspeth and Caleb struggle toward a refuge, they forge an agreement. They will find the three killers and wreck vengeance on them. This bizarre duo finally finds an elderly couple who tends to Elspeth’s wounds and feeds them. In the short time that Elspeth and Caleb spend with their benefactors, they learn that the killers have been there before them and had frightened and abused the aging pair. Elspeth asks for directions. Which way did the killers go when they left? And so it is that this maimed woman and a troubled boy with a shotgun find their way to a town called Waterbridge ... a place with which Elspeth is familiar, for it is the town from which she stole Caleb some 12 years ago.
In time, Elspeth and Caleb find their way to Waterbridge, and both the journey and the town acquire the qualities of a dark parable. Desperate to find work, Elspeth takes a room in a local hotel, disguises herself as a man and manages to get and retain a position cutting ice from Lake Erie. Elspeth is poorly qualified to perform the torturous job of lifting, hauling and storing great slabs of ice, but she manages to survive despite the pain of her wounds, largely due to the assistance of a fellow worker. However, the most horrendous event in this novel is the graphic description of wreck and bloodshed attending the collapse of the ice house ... an event that culminates in a mass funeral for the crushed workers.
Caleb, left to his own devices, seeks work at “another kind of hotel,” the Elm Inn, where he sweeps and does chores as he watches patrons come and go. It is here that Caleb acquires a brutal introduction to adulthood. There is gambling, violence, knife fights, 12-year-old prostitutes and occasional murders. Young Caleb witnesses scenes so bizarre that they could easily qualify as some kind of purgatory, chapters out of Candide, or a perverse version of Pilgrim’s Progress. Especially noteworthy is the balcony of the Elm Hotel from which drunk, and wounded or dying customers often fall (or are cast) into the field of snow. Caleb watches as the Elm Inn prostitutes “make snow angels” in the field where the drunk and/or dying customers lie covered with snow.
When the guilt-ridden Elspeth finally tells Caleb that she is not his “birth mother” and that his “real parents” are somewhere in Waterbridge, the bewildered boy begins to slowly alter his mission of vengeance. Instead of finding the killers, he now wants to find his parents. Who are they? How does he find them? Is it possible that, when he confronts them, he will realize that Elspeth is his “true mother”? The irony in this situation is disturbing because the identity of his true family and the revelation regarding the identity of the three killers are linked.
The Kept is a dark novel that investigates the roots of obsession. All of the characters in James Scott’s novel are driven by emotions that can make people helpless pawns to forces beyond their control. Love and retribution are twisted together into a self-destructive force. If you have a taste for a well-written, unrelenting search for retribution, a search that reads like a an Old Testament parable, you might love The Kept. I did.
The Kept by James Scott. HarperCollins, 2014. 357 pages