Strout’s novel is wonderful, her portrayal of ordinary people suffused with the intimate details of private lives and secret sorrows. Following
her prior novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout revisits the small-town sensibility Lucy escaped after a poverty riddled childhood. Cold Earth treads the beaten path of that same small-town geography in Illinois that Lucy fled,
then found notoriety as an author. (Lucy returns briefly to her home ground, but the visit is short-lived--albeit transcendent--as siblings come face to face with their childhood memories.) That short reunion is pivotal in a story rife with rich characterizations, both eccentric and colorful.
Through Strout’s prose, the reader has a rare view far exceeding the usual parameters of characters sharing family secrets and the unhealed wounds of childhood. The experience is like walking through the rooms of a familiar house, worn by time and experience, the ghosts of childhood wandering aimlessly, searching for someone to listen. Though a minor character in this novel, Lucy Barton is a constant presence, the one who escaped by purging her pain with a torrent of words.
From one chapter to another, the characters step from the shadows, inhabiting the present but tethered to the past. Poverty is everywhere, the chilling shame of people living on the edge, defined by lack, creating lives devoid of luxury. Mothers and fathers are powerful figures
although obtuse, in a world where children seek affection and direction which is often in short supply. These children, now adult men and women, are perfectly etched, accessible strangers fashioning lives from the remnants of the past. The reader steps silently into these strangers' lives.
We witness their scenes of deep confusion and shame as they struggle to make more of the stingy threads of poverty, staring down the world with few expectations and many misconceptions. Each blank-faced home yields another story, another family shaped by common experience, strangled feelings, and unspoken longings: “They had grown up on shame; it was the nutrient of their soil.”
This is the territory of love and forgiveness, endurance in the face of difficult circumstance: the hubris of strangers passing through, free with complaint, oblivious to others, like a longtime resident who reaches out when he perceives loneliness in another. Those who travel through this otherworldly terrain reflect all the shades of humanity, from the chronically unhappy to those who thrive on contentment. (For a time, they are my neighbors, siblings and friends.) All are buffeted by memory, a childhood room grown shabby, yellowing photographs, an aging face a shock in the midst of youthful camaraderie, the finiteness of life, the wisdom won through patience and humility. These characters are uniquely present, sheltering their deepest secrets, surprised how quickly time passes inspiring a foolish urge to hoard what remains, the certainty that death always claims its due: “That astonishment had to do with death, with the wiping out of a person, with the puzzlement that a man was simply gone.”
I have not loved a novel like this since Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, Strout’s rendering of humanity familiar and healing. Her characters reaffirm the complexity of the human heart, the opportunity to understand, accepting grace wherever it is found.