Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Kept.
Everything about The Kept is savage—the opening chapter, the journey of mother and son on a quest for revenge, the sterility of the setting, the brutality of existence in upstate New York in 1897. The chill of the first images, when midwife Elspeth Howell returns home to her isolated farm to discover husband Jorah and four of her five children dead, permeates the novel: the sights and smells of loss and grief, the bitter taste of revenge on the back of the throat, the stink of grime and dried sweat after days of trudging through the snow; “Caleb kept awake with thoughts of murder and Elspeth of death.”
After arriving home to the massacre, Elspeth is seriously wounded (albeit by accident), drifting in and out of delirium, tended by twelve-year-old Caleb, who survived the murders by hiding from the killers—three strangers with red bandannas. Certain his mother is now dying too, Caleb copes as best he can when fire destroys the home and nearly devours Elspeth as well. After a harrowing few days, mother and son begin a rigorous trek to find the men who descended on the farm, intent on exacting retribution.
This is a novel of moral ambiguities and human flaws, the word of God found in the Bible no more harsh than the reality of these hardscrabble lives, from the remote farm set upon by assassins to the town of Watersbridge, where Caleb and Elspeth come face to face with harsh truths. Elspeth is called to account for a lifetime of misdeeds, Caleb confronted with shocking revelations that force him to an impossible decision.
While Elspeth finds work dressed as a man, successfully mimicking the posture and movements of the opposite sex, her chest bound tight by bandages over her wounds, Caleb sweeps floors in a brothel, sharp-eyed for the presence of the men who came to the farm and left his family lying bloody in the snow. As solemn and brooding as the events following Elspeth’s arrival at the farm, the gloom is maintained in Watersbridge, where a cheap hotel room houses a woman and a boy with few words and churning thoughts. Much of Elspeth’s past is relived through memory on the journey to the town. She bears the ultimate guilt for the attack on her home, her actions inspiring the events that lead to the family’s deathly tableau.
Unfortunately, Caleb finds more than he has bargained for in his first real foray into civilization, such as it is. Prior to the journey, the only society Caleb has known is that of his siblings and parents. Scott describes the landscape as “everything beautiful, yet barren,” the promise of death lingering, pervasive, a boy and a woman obsessed with revenge. Beyond that goal, there is no thought, both caught up in a cycle of survival that harbors few expectations for longevity.
As though in a fairy tale, the survivors of carnage move through time, encountering strangers along the way, no one left untouched by fear or violence, survival measured one day at a time. Death, atonement, revenge, blood debt: all drive a stark tale where a taciturn woman reveals her secrets at the end of the journey and a twelve-year-old boy faces choices beyond his ability to fully understand. There are no gray areas, everything limned starkly in black and white, bright red blood staining a landscape, a final exclamation of life extinguished.