By Abi Maxwell
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 28 pages
Abi Maxwell is a New Hampshire native and her new novel “The Den” is mostly set there. It comprises twinned tales of two pairs of sisters living 150 years apart.
Close to the end, Charley, son of one of the sisters but raised in the open spaces of Montana, visits New Hampshire for the first time and immediately feels claustrophobic because forests conceal the vistas.
Readers of “The Den” may often share his feeling of claustrophobia, partly because Abi Maxwell describes the woodlands so vividly, but more because her tight focus rarely swerves from the sisters.
Growing up in an old farmhouse in the woods, Henrietta and Jane Olson spend hours playing and hiding in the trees and the family barn. Their forays into the neighboring village feel like exploratory ventures, especially when 15-year-old Henrietta struts onto the railway trestle over the river, and seemingly effortlessly captures the attention of Kaus, a new and super-attractive boy in town.
Her 12-year-old sister, Jane, watches her — and she watches their love-making, too. She’s often bewildered and sometimes scared by her seemingly don’t-care sister, who thinks nothing of dismissing her — as is the way with big sisters
At first, we see Henrietta solely through Jane’s eyes. Then, the narration moves to Henrietta and we realize her fears as well as her strengths, and how she uses both to build a life for herself and Charley.
One of the stories she tells him took place in the barn on her family’s New Hampshire property — the very barn where she hid with Kaus. In the 1850s, Elspeth Ross, a Scottish immigrant, lived there with her family. Like Henrietta, Elspeth is daring and sometimes provocative. She’s imaginative, too. Eventually things get too difficult for her in New Hampshire.
She decamps one terrible day of record-breaking cold. Before she leaves she writes a story in the compendium of local lore kept by her neighbor. Elspeth’s story tells of the mercury plummeting to extraordinary lows; of the barn windows blowing in, and of the five coyotes sitting there next morning in place of the five members of the Ross family, who have disappeared.
Perhaps eaten? Perhaps transformed?
Seriously unlikely. Everybody knows that in the 19th century there were no coyotes in New Hampshire. Nonetheless, Jan, Henrietta and Charley are fascinated by Elspeth’s eerie tale.
It is one of the links between the two pairs of sisters. Other links include shared characteristics between the bold Henrietta and Elspeth, and the retiring observant younger sisters, Jane and Claire, who stay with their families into adulthood long after the older girls have taken off for distant parts.
But while the analogies between the pairs of sisters are clear, the reasons why their stories should be interlaced are less so. The primary story of Jane and Henrietta can perfectly stand alone as a coming-of-age novel. Elspeth’s story seems secondary, and though Elspeth herself is vividly present, and her relationship with her son, Evan, fetchingly evoked, her story seems like an interpolation into Henrietta’s rather than a crucial or even complementary element.
It is less convincing, too. The exploits and emotions of Henrietta and Jane are vivid and credible given their mother leaves them to do whatever they like while she spends her days painting in her studio. In contrast, the picture of Elspeth’s life in a community of 19th-century millworkers in Scotland and then in New Hampshire is vaguer.
Details such as Elspeth’s giving a food basket including a whole turkey to a new neighbor is scarcely credible since factory workers earned very little. Nor would Claire have served biscuits with scrambled eggs in Scotland because biscuits there are what we would call cookies.
Such seemingly trivial culinary mistakes make clear that the part of Elspeth’s tale that is fully imagined is that of the five mysterious coyotes. These animals arrived in New England in the 20th century, and Jane’s husband, Clarence, is an expert on them. He calls them opportunistic scavengers. Jane thinks of the vanished Henrietta. “Was she also an opportunistic scavenger, or was I?” She asks Clarence how it is that coyotes now flourish in New England, while wolves, still occasionally present in the 19th century, have become extinct there.
“Diet, adaptability, genetics,” he explains. Adaptability and perhaps genetics certainly explain those other wanderers — Henrietta and Elspeth — who, like coyotes, settle and make a life in new places.
The haunting coyote tale infuses the histories of the four sisters. Their differing characters are rendered precisely and powerfully, as are many of the settings, especially those in New Hampshire and Maine. There’s thus a lot to enjoy in this novel, as well as some things to ponder. Coyotes, for example.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.