Weaving into her sharply observed new novel some powerful notions about what constitutes the captor and the captive, Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day begins over
a single stultifying hot long weekend in the town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire.
It is here that the impressionable thirteen-year-old Henry and his brittle, solitary mother Adele adopt Frank, an escaped prisoner, after picking him up in the magazine section of the local Pricemart.
But Frank proves to be anything but a hardened criminal. Injured, beaten down, and still dripping with blood from jumping out of the second-floor window of the hospital where
he'd been taken to get his appendix out, Frank remains an imposing figure. Tall with big hands and an impossibly deep voice, a strong jaw, and hollow cheeks, the way he looks at Henry square in the eye with his big blue eyes
make him feel from the very first moment that he can trust this person.
Adele, an ex dancer reeling after her acrimonious divorce from Henry’s father and a series of devastating miscarriages, is quickly enthralled by this darkly handsome man’s sensitive and oddly kind nature. When Frank ties Adele up and feeds her his homemade chili in order to gain her trust, for the first time the relationship becomes enigmatically sexual.
Amid the homemade peach pies, the baseball games, and the friendly sit-down dinners, there’s always a sense for Henry that this stranger is a fair and decent man
- and Henry’s darkly comic adolescent observations of Frank and of his damaged, isolated mother drive much of this tale. Frank quickly becomes like “a guest we had invited over.” While this strange and intense relationship between the outlaw and his mother develops, the impressionable and sensitive Henry isn’t sure he should be seeing it.
Of course, these intimacies ultimately fuel Henry’s own bourgeoning desires for girls, particularly young, energetic Eleanor, who aches to get into a really great private school “where they focus mainly on drama and you could where a nose ring if you wanted.” Eleanor more than any other character ultimately influences the outcome of the story and Frank’s new life with Henry and Adele.
As the stultifying heat symbolically intensifies throughout this weekend, Henry is riddled with conflicting emotions - whether to tell his father, the authorities, or even Eleanor about Frank, even as Frank and Adele plan to escape with Henry to Canada. Meanwhile, the police search intensifies and the net around Frank tightens when it becomes known the authorities are offering a
$10,000 reward for information leading to Frank’s capture.
Maynard writes her tender story with dark, ironic humor, fully sensing Henry’s adolescent inadequacies as he gravitates between generosity and his fear of Frank and his future. But there’s also Maynard’s sensitive depiction of Adele’s loneliness and longing, her sense of being in love with love as she falls into the arms of Frank, “the first true piece of good luck in our lives in a long time.”
There’s also the rather sad depiction of Frank’s momentary happiness and his rapture in this sense of finally belonging to a family, no matter how tenuous it may be.
Eventually the events in this coming-of-age tale come full circle. Nearly two decades pass, and Henry can still see Frank’s face as it
was the day he first met him. Essentially a story about true love and how when we find it we must hold onto it, at the center of it all is poor, confused Henry, who remains blindsided by the events of that long weekend, not too young to understand that sorrow and regret - even betrayal - can come in many forms.