- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006


By Elizabeth Strout.

Random House, $24, 296 pages


A small town in New England was the setting of Elizabeth Strout’s compelling first novel, “Amy and Isabelle.”

Published nearly eight years ago, Ms. Strout’s sensitive yet probing story of tensions between a single mother with a hidden past and her adolescent daughter coming of age in the 1960s was also a rich portrait of the socially stratified mill town where they lived. Now, in her second novel, “Abide with Me,” this uncommonly gifted writer takes us farther north, to an even smaller town in rural Maine in the late 1950s.

West Annett, where the novel’s hero, Tyler Caskey, serves as minister of the Congregational Church, is really more a village than a town: a place so tiny, people have to go into nearby Hollywell to see a movie or to do the more serious clothes-shopping that Tyler’s pretty, all-too-noticeably chic wife, Lauren, used to do.

But although the plain-living, abstemious members of Reverend Caskey’s congregation certainly had their reservations about their minister’s Titian-haired wife (an outsider from the distant world of Massachusetts), their dislike for her has dissipated ever since her sudden death just over a year ago, not long after the birth of the couple’s second child.

The novel opens in 1959, depicted here as a time of anxiety — and a certain hopefulness. Communism threatens, Russian satellites orbit the earth and nuclear war does not seem out of the question: three local families have built fallout shelters. (One wonders, however, about some of the other background information Ms. Strout dispenses: were “a million Arabs in the Middle East close to starving to death, and thousands of people in Eastern Europe … still living in temporary camps?”)

Nonetheless, among West Annettites, a belief seems to prevail “that after half a century of colossal human horror, the world really could perhaps be finally decent, and safe, and good.”

But for Tyler Caskey, a world once filled with hope, love and joy has become a dark and desolate place, and not only because of his wife’s untimely death. There’s another serious problem, one that he refuses — or can’t bring himself — to acknowledge: his older daughter, Katherine, who’s just beginning elementary school, has all but stopped talking.

In the wake of Lauren’s death, Tyler’s flinty mother, Margaret Caskey, took Katherine’s toddler sister, Jeannie, to live with her, but left Katherine to stay with Tyler. Once a cheerful little girl devoted to her new baby sister, poor Katherine has become a real problem child, uncommunicative at school yet given to sudden fits of fury at her teacher.

At home she is quieter, but with little to say to her father, who turns a blind eye to the change that has come over her. When Mary Ingersoll, her well-meaning teacher, calls him in for a conference, Tyler feels wounded, indignant and downright angry.

Writing about emotions that are changeable and complicated — difficult to define, hard to articulate — is one of Ms. Strout’s fortes. Here, as in “Amy and Isabelle,” she not only portrays these states of feeling in a way that is convincing and psychologically acute, but she also employs the gradual revelation of emotional truth as a way of generating impetus and suspense.

Again, she has wisely chosen a kind of semi-omniscient, third-person narrative, which enables her to dip into the minds of different characters without constricting herself to a single viewpoint or disclosing too much about any given person at the story’s outset. Thus, the novel unfolds both backwards and forwards through time, as we follow Tyler’s trials as a widower and single parent, while gradually coming to learn more about Lauren’s death, the nature of the Caskeys’ marriage, and the burden being borne by little Katherine.

But this is not just a story of one family’s struggle to cope with guilt and grief. “Abide with Me” is also a portrait of a town and the people in it, from Connie Hatch, Tyler’s hard-working, good-hearted housekeeper, to Charlie Austin, an acerbic schoolteacher who is secretly engaged in an affair as lurid as anything in “Peyton Place.” Ms. Strout is adept at taking us deep into the hearts and minds of individual characters, as in this finely sensitive rendition of the way a small child like Katherine sees her world (this after after her father asks her what happened at school that day):

“Katherine looked at her father quickly, and then away … to where the swallows were darting around the door of the barn. Because the most amazing thing had happened at school. One of the girls in the class had worn a pink dress and blue shoes, and another girl in the class had worn a blue dress and pink shoes … Katherine [had run] over to the girls, wanting to say that if they traded shoes it would be just right.

“But they told her to move … called her a crybaby even though she wasn’t crying … And now her father was squatted down in front of her asking if something important happened at school, and the important thing — the amazement of those beautiful mismatched dresses and shoes — rose big as a mountain and her words were little ants that couldn’t make the climb; not even a scream could make the climb.”

Ms. Strout is equally skillful at evoking the general mindset of a social milieu: “He had married a summer girl. Almost never — plenty of people would have told you this — was that a good idea. He had married a summer girl from Massachusetts, and that alone brought complications. Had Lauren been from New Hampshire, better still, Vermont, it probably would not have mattered. But to come from Massachusetts meant a certain kind of crassness, most likely money, probably cocktails, and Massachusetts people were the rudest drivers in the world.”

With a similar blend of wry humor and empathy, Ms. Strout delves into the history of Lauren and Tyler’s courtship, the distrust between their respective families (both sides feel their child has married down), and the troubling tensions that can arise in a marriage between two people with different values who also happen to be wildly, deeply and satisfyingly in love.

Ms. Strout takes her book’s title from a well-known hymn, and questions of religious feeling and belief are central themes in this novel. Inextricably entwined with her portrait of a family and a town is the story of a minister’s changing relationship with his congregation, his faith and his understanding of his vocation.

In Tyler Caskey, Ms. Strout has created an all-too-believably human character: intelligent, sincerely idealistic, profoundly decent, yet all too capable of blindness and mistakes. She succeeds in making him sympathetic, appealing and admirable without glossing over his flaws or straining our credulity.

With his strong social conscience, his admiration for the heroic anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his Paul Tillich-influenced theological background, Tyler is very recognizably a certain type of mid-20th-century Protestant minister, yet at the same time, he is also portrayed as a particular individual with his own distinctive set of character traits.

As the novel draws towards its close, there are one or two loose ends that Ms. Strout has left hanging, which somewhat weaken what is, nonetheless, an emotionally and aesthetically rewarding conclusion to a truly memorable story.

Merle Rubin is writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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