- - Thursday, January 24, 2019

OLD NEWGATE ROAD

By Keith Scribner

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages

Passengers flying into Hartford’s Bradley International Airport descend over ultra-long barns spaced out on the flat lands of the Connecticut Valley. In midsummer they are surrounded by crops shrouded in white muslin, and a few weeks later, when their louvered sides are opened to the air, sharp-eyed visitors driving by may spot long golden leaves hanging inside.

Those leaves are the prized and pampered Connecticut Shade tobacco grown for cigars, most particularly the outer wrapping. It’s a demanding crop that both marks the landscape and affects the lives of people who live nearby. Among them was Cole Connolly.



He grew up in the 1980s in a colonial house his parents were restoring with such immaculate attention to authenticity that they called their living room the keeping room and the door that led into the hall the funeral door. The restoration was continuous. Cole and his two siblings were enrolled in knocking down walls, pounding the nails out of lath, and whatever else needed doing. Work was supervised by their dad and orchestrated by their mom, and often slowed by experiments in colonial reality such as raising rabbits and wife-beating.

Eventually Cole’s father murdered his mother. Cole was a teenager and focused his efforts on becoming an architect. Now, 30 years later he has a successful business in Oregon, and has returned to Connecticut for the first time to take possession of the valuable chestnut timber garnered from a demolished tobacco barn.

Naturally he takes a look at the old homestead. It’s surprisingly the same as when he left; his bike is even in the yard. It turns out that his dad, now released from prison, is inside, still knocking down walls, including some new ones. Realizing his father has early dementia. Cole sticks around, helping with the house while trying to find permanent care for him.

Back in Oregon his son Danny, a proponent of economic and environmental justice, has gotten uncompromising enough for his school to expel him. Cole’s estranged wife Nikki struggles with what to do, so Cole suggests she ship him to Connecticut, where he can work the tobacco fields as Cole and his teenaged classmates had done. Maybe it will do him some good.

Though Danny wishes he were tending broccoli rather than tobacco, he sticks with it and makes friends. Cole also meets people, including an old girl-friend Liz and her malign brother. Psychologically, too, he is reconnecting with his teenaged self, and questioning his past behavior. He was always on edge about when his father would next hit his mother and always comforted her afterwards, so why did he never try to prevent the blows?

He questions his role in his marriage too. He adores his wife. Why has he pushed her away?

Author Keith Scribner handles this family tale with extraordinary tact. By keeping his pages alive with activity, concentrating readers’ attention on those demanding tobacco fields and the never-ending house restoration, he focuses on events and their after-effects so readers are always aware of the present slipping into the past.

He does this also by resurrecting Cole’s memories: Working on the house as a boy, lying awake listening for sounds of his parents quarreling, or hiding with Liz in the tobacco barns or under the nets where they can make love. Liz is now happily married. There’s no question of rekindling their passion. That time has gone by. And so has the heyday of the tobacco business — hence the demolition of some of the barns. The house has also passed its sell-by date; at the very least, it has deteriorated rather than progressed.

The tobacco fields, the house, and Cole’s marriage are analogues. Keith Scribner suggests the temper of the marriage through the phone calls Nikki and Cole make about Danny. Again, he scrolls through small occurrences and conversations, showing their effects as the seemingly ephemeral becomes personal and family history. Eventually Cole “comes to realize that forgiveness doesn’t happen in an instant — it’s not a simple decision, but an accumulation of generous acts, of kindness and taking care. He stayed on [in Connecticut] this summer because that’s what forgiveness looks like.”

One quiet evening Cole goes up to Old Newgate, an ancient prison, now an historic site. He recalls learning about the horrendous treatment of the prisoners during a school trip. Today, the building stands, but blessedly the life lived in it is no more than a memory. Yet like other places and people in this novel, the scene is vivid, memorable — yet another hard-working element that adds its metaphorical and historical charge to this well-written and affecting novel about taking steps to move on from trauma.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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