Although steeped in the violence of the Civil War, Lent’s inspired prose lifts both characters and circumstance, revealing not only a sudden deadly act but the subtle layers of a man of pure heart driven to betraying his finest self. In western New York State, Malcolm Hopeton joins the war because he feels a need to combat a great evil threatening his country, for the right of each man to determine his own fate. Though his wife, Bethany, begs him not to leave, Hopeton doesn’t recognize the depth of her fear, leaving his farm in the hands of longtime handyman Amos Wheeler and a newly-hired younger man, Harlan Davis. Four years later, the war
over, Hopeton returns to find his land pillaged of livestock and valuables, his wife run off with Wheeler. With the help of the faithful Harlan Davis, who has remained to care for the property until the owner’s homecoming, Malcolm patiently awaits Bethany’s return, never anticipating that Wheeler will be accompanying her. The violence that ensues leaves Wheeler dead
and Bethany as well, from a fall when Malcolm roughly pushes her aside. Captured and jailed, townsfolk howling for a lynching, Hopeton remains mute in a basement cell, wanting only to die. Neither tale nor men are as simple as their actions, as Lent illustrates in the unfolding of a story begun long before.
A Slant of Light is essentially a rumination on love and loss in the lives of three good men: Malcolm Hopeton, Harlan Davis, and farmer August Swarthout, whose beloved wife died in childbirth.
The widower stoically manages house and home with the assistance of hired woman Becca Davis, Harlan’s older sister. A boy forced prematurely to manhood by circumstances, Harlan is injured when he attempts to intercede during Hopeton’s conflict with Wheeler. Concerned for the boy’s well-being while Hopeton is incarcerated, Swarthout offers to shelter the boy at the farm while he recuperates. Becca sleeps on site while her brother remains, rather than trekking a mile to and from town as is her habit.
While the legal system grinds slowly into gear, Judge Ansel Gordon considers it his duty to learn the pertinent details of the murders before the case goes to trial. Meanwhile, attorney Enoch Stone collaborates with Bethany’s father to absolve Malcolm of his passionate and deserved rage, the father long despairing of Bethany’s moral compass. Hopeton remains silent, suffering the guilt of failing his wife’s need, underestimating the danger she faced without his protection from Wheeler’s scheming. Though Hopeton’s relationship with Bethany is only gradually understood through Malcolm’s private memories, another perspective on the essential kindness of this man is revealed by Harlan, who is desperate that people should understand the true evil embodied by Amos Wheeler. He finds a willing listener in Swarthout, though both are spare with words, contemplating carefully the weight and meaning of each. The drama plays out, August’s unflinching support of Harlan and, by extension, Malcolm, the farmer haunted by the memory of the wife he loved from childhood, cognizant of Becca’s daily presence and a gradual awareness of the extent of his loneliness.
In this part of New York State, many have embraced the teachings of the Friend, a way of life that honors each man and how he chooses to walk in the world. Through thoughts, memories and actions, as each of the three men is more clearly defined, Malcolm, August and Harlan evoke both the personal complexities and moral dimensions of men hewing to simple lives amid the travails of humanity. Stripped bare, each shines. Harlan embraces the newness of what love might mean, Hopeton protects his wife in death if not in life,
and Swarthout is caught between an immersion in the past and the fleeting gifts of the present. This novel is extraordinary and profoundly moving, a contemplation on the hearts of men and their capacity for love.