In this eerie, melodramatic tale of two voices, Lucy Evans frantically writes in a notebook to her niece, Justine, telling of her older sister, Lilith who
died three years ago. She also tells of how the story of that summer “is hers alone.” Lucy has kept a dark and terrible secret that is either hers to keep or to share, a secret that could perhaps blacken the names of “the defenseless dead.” As Lucy writes about the family she once loved, she decides to make Justine the sole beneficiary
and leave her niece her diary and her savings account, as well as her ancient, rambling yellow house on the shores of the picaresque Minnesota lake.
Like the ghosts of half-forgotten things, Lucy recalls when she was just eleven in the summer of 1935, when she was all too willing to let slip away the terrible tragedy that engulfed Lilith and her six-year-old sister Emily, who went missing one night and never returned. Young creates a picture of two older women living out their days on a “screened in porch”
where Lucy continues to relive the marginal existence of her childhood. She successfully avoids any talk of her fundamentalist father, who once owned a successful drugstore in town, or her neighbors, Abe and Matthew Miller, two handsome
half-Chippewa brothers, who owned the popular fishing lodge a couple of houses over.
“I felt slippery with the cold satisfaction when I hurt her,” says Lucy, who with Lilith seems to resent Emily’s closeness to Eleanor, their insistently neurotic and overprotective mother.
Glamorous Lilith is growing up, Lucy thinks she’s being left behind, and young Emily wants so desperately to belong.
All this reinforces the notion that their father is up to no good as he increasingly watches over Lilith when she flirts with Abe. Mr. Evans will eventually become the most desperate figure in the story, a hollow echo of a man doomed to the worse of tragedies: the loss of his home and his youngest daughter.
Living in San Diego in a worn and shabby apartment with her two daughters, Melanie and Angela, Justine is left to draw together the fragments of her aunt’s incredible story: these two surviving sisters who--in the shadow of tragedy--grew from youth to old age raising Maurie, Justine’s recalcitrant, wayward mother. Why
did stay? And what happened to the house they must have had in town? Forced to confront that
her boyfriend Patrick is not as dependable and meticulous as he first appeared, Justine bundles up Melanie and Angela
and takes off to northern Minnesota, where she attempts to find new home amid the green trees, clear water, and endless blue nights.
At first, Justine sees Lucy’s house as a “starting over place” in which Lucy’s past “doesn’t really matter.” Sitting on a faded quilt in this cold,
dead house by a frozen lake, practically in Canada, Justine realizes that her aunt has pulled her away from a life of uncertainty and a sense of failure, and from Patrick's neediness and manipulation. As Justine looks at the painting of Emily with the two candles sitting beside it on a walnut stand, she sees a scene heavy with remembrance and mourning. It awakens Justine’s recollections of her great grandmother and propels her right into the mystery of that little sister who disappeared on the last day of summer all those years ago.
It is in these moments that Young relives key portions of the life of her ancient, spinster aunt and embattled single mother. In alternating chapters, Young presents Justine and Lucy in their own unique voices, especially that summer when everything in Lucy’s life began to decline. Justine, meanwhile, finds herself the unwitting keeper of Lucy’s stories, of the lost child Emily left alone and frightened in the winter woods, pursued by a man “with the savage face of a killer.” As the days pass and Justine reconnects with Matthew and Abe Miller, she begins to see their lodge and Lucy’s house as a time capsule with its past separated from the present by “the thinnest of veils.” Surprisingly, Melanie becomes fascinated by Lucy’s old story and by her house, which like the Millers lodge seems unchanged from the day that Emily disappeared.
Young supplies all the gothic that the book promises: the creaky house, the thick woods, the frozen lake, the snowstorm that isolates everyone, as well as the Evans family legacy that Justine inherits in the form of photos, books, and “brass-faced clocks.” The story is full of history and also betrayal, as if Lucy’s shadowy past is directing Justine’s life even though Justine knows nothing about it. Unfolding in graceful, subtle tones, Young succeeds in crafting a tale which shows us that Lucy is indeed the sad and reluctant keeper of secrets, with Justine her guide.