Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Kept.
Scott’s desolate frontier novel recreates a time of hate, beauty and horror and a time of great loyalty and love. For Scott’s two central characters, twelve-year-old Caleb and his mother, Elspeth Howell, in particular, a world of love seems far away. Forced to question their existence and “the sins” of their past, each leg of their cruel, violent journey makes them wonder how nature’s beauty can be so intertwined with man’s brutality.
When Elspeth returns to find her entire family shot dead, Caleb, her only surviving son, is nowhere to be seen. The bodies of her adopted children lay around her; her husband, Jorah, hadn’t even risen from their bed before he was shot. Elspeth realizes that more than one murderer stole into their home. For the first time since marrying Jorah, Elspeth grasps that her sins are perhaps tied to those she has wronged. Caleb hides in the pantry, unable to leave the bodies of brothers and sisters.
The moaning of the wind accompanies Caleb’s sobbing while he waits for the men to return. He shifts his Ithaca to the crook of his shoulder, accidentally shooting his mother after mistaking her for the murderers. Although most of the shot misses her, Elspeth plunges into darkness, her memories unfurling around her, uncovering events she has worked hard to forget.
The action, once begun, is relentless as a courageous Caleb and an injured Elspeth embark on a dangerous pursuit for the killers. Scott gradually unfurls all of Elsbeth’s trespasses, all of the lies that have led her to this place and moment in time. All that Caleb can tell his mother is that he plans on killing them. First, however, they must both battle wind, fog and a snow and mist that “presses down on them.” Cresting yet another unending line of hills, they stumble across an elderly couple who give them food and shelter. Caleb dreams of killers and scarves, of untying his brother’s boots “and rising up to the dark sky.” Like a ghost himself, Caleb is buoyed along with the promises of Jorah to keep Elspeth safe and protected.
Scott’s eloquent language reflects the internal and external conflicts of both Caleb and Elspeth. Deep, cryptic imagery becomes symbolic of their journey, painting a sometimes beautiful, intricate picture. But it is the pair’s memories which really drive the narrative forward as they stumble into a town on the banks of Lake Eerie. Forced to consider her only option, Elspeth finds herself working at the Great Lakes Ice Company, fully aware that they need time to find the three killers. The only clue is Caleb’s vision of evil and that the killers all wore red scarves.
Scott shepherds Elspeth and Caleb through the early days of their weather-beaten journey before reality catches up and each faces difficult choices in a socially constricted society where a woman must masquerade as a man to find work. Elspeth, building the lies of her past around a son she loves but hardly knows, realizes that her past crimes will come to haunt her. Caleb is desperate to find a trace of the killers at the Elm Inn, the local den of iniquity, a gathering house for whores and drunks. Here, amid a bunch of hard-bitten men who all want a small piece of Caleb, a sliver and a clue will be discovered.
The dramas play out, innocence is lost and hope rekindled in an icy landscape of extreme hardship and poverty. The infinitely unpredictable territory of frontier America is on the verge of great industrial change. Sometimes hard to read are the constant stomach-churning moments of violence that are described (and viewed by the characters). Even the nicer interludes are almost all about sadness and death, every encounter unbelievably depressing. Far more interesting are the incidental characters: delicate Charles Feather and Mr. White, the owner of Elm Inn. Sure, times were tough, and Scott certainly captures the essence of life throughout this period, but the author’s unrelenting desolation ultimately left me feeling very little for anyone.