Bright's Passage

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Overview

“Bright’s Passage shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime…This is the work of a gifted novelist…” – Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review

Josh Ritter’s first novel is a wondrous, suspenseful, and uniquely affecting story of the journey taken by a father and his infant son.

Henry Bright is newly returned to West Virginia from the battlefields of the First World War. Grief struck by the death of his young ...

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Bright's Passage: A Novel

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Overview

“Bright’s Passage shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime…This is the work of a gifted novelist…” – Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review

Josh Ritter’s first novel is a wondrous, suspenseful, and uniquely affecting story of the journey taken by a father and his infant son.

Henry Bright is newly returned to West Virginia from the battlefields of the First World War. Grief struck by the death of his young wife and unsure of how to care for the infant son she left behind, Bright is soon confronted by the destruction of the only home he’s ever known. His only hope for safety is the angel who has followed him to Appalachia from the trenches of France and who now promises to protect him and his son.

Together, Bright and his newborn, along with a cantankerous goat and the angel guiding them, make their way through a landscape ravaged by forest fire toward an uncertain salvation, haunted by the abiding nightmare of his experiences in the war and shadowed by his dead wife’s father, the Colonel, and his two brutal sons. 

At times harrowing, at times funny, and always possessed by the sheer gorgeousness and unique imagination that have made Josh Ritter’s songs beloved to so many, this is the debut of a virtuoso fiction writer.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
War is hell, and so is Henry Bright's homecoming from the trenches of WWI in songwriter Ritter's appropriately lyrical debut. Bright is a half-shattered veteran whose ordeal in combat continues with the death of his young wife in childbirth. Spurred on by an angel who speaks to him through his livestock, Henry torches the cabin where his wife died, using the family Bible to spark the blaze. Soon, the angel tells Henry his infant son is the Future King of Heaven, a replacement for the one "who has soaked the world in blood." Henry's desolation is believably crushing, sometimes darkly funny, and rendered with a lyricist's delicacy: against the backdrop of the forest fire sparked by the cabin's blaze, Henry, the child, horse, and a goat make their way to town, dodging his wife's psychotic family, who blame him for her death. "The sky was too dark for afternoon, and where the sun should have hung there was now only an undulating black curtain of heat, which pulsed through the windowpanes upon his face like the throb of an open furnace." As the fire threatens Bright's friends and enemies, Ritter evokes war, violence and the fearful and numb responses to trauma, squaring them up in a hopeful, humble revelation. (July)
From the Publisher

Praise for Bright’s Passage
 
Bright’s Passage shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime…This is the work of a gifted novelist…” – Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review
 
“[An] eloquent and intensely moving historical novel . . . a work of masterful, stunning prose.”—Oprah.com
 
“Displays Ritter’s abundant lyrical gifts…Rich in metaphor and surprising moments of humor… A dark parable in the southern Gothic tradition of Cormac McCarthy.” The Boston Globe
 
“This debut novel from musician Josh Ritter…is intensely beautiful, tragic and also funny…[The novel] expands as it moves forward, complicating relationships, deepening our concern for Bright and blurring the lines between good and bad….Ritter knows how to build a rich, beautiful story with shape: Bright’s Passage has a powerful end.”  - Los Angeles Times
 
“A charming, sweet and highly readable novel . . . [Ritter’s] imagery is bold, tantalizing.”—Associated Press
 
“Propelled by short chapters that read like powerful vignettes, all of which lead to a final confrontation as haunting as any ballad Ritter could have written.”—San Francisco Chronicle
 
“The novel is written in Ritter's unique voice — that of a troubadour and soothsaying songwriter, and it is as pleasing to read as his music is to hear.” NPR.org 

“Josh Ritter is already one of the country’s most accomplished songwriters. Based on the heartbreaking, luminous Bright’s Passage, he may become one of our most accomplished novelists as well.”—Dennis Lehane
 
“Ritter renders Bright’s journey in beautiful, haunting style…Ritter’s ability to evoke a bygone era or a stunning image with a handful of words is as strong as it is in the best of his songs. He’s taken great care to build a fully realized world on the cusp of modernity, and he’s filled it with enigmas worth pondering.” The Onion / AV Club
 
“The story unfolds with leisurely ease, told in lofty, even tones. Ritter has a knack for details…He's an assured stylist as well…A tender, touching novel about a survivor of both World War I and a nasty family conflict.” Kirkus Reviews
 
“An adventure story with the penetrating emotional colors of a fable; a mythlike survival quest with the convincing texture of a movie; a good read that stays in the memory.”—Robert Pinsky
 
“Ritter’s got perfect pitch in his scenes of Appalachia, getting just right the hardscrabble descriptions, sights and sounds that convince us to let go as dubious readers and fully enter the fictional dream of the novel. He can build suspense too, pulling the trick off through chapters that shift in time and place. That said, his remarkable rendering of the trench warfare in World War I convinced me of his talents. …Add Josh Ritter to the list of novelists we’ll take seriously as his next books come…no matter his day job.” Paste.com
 
“A dark, enchanting parable that reads as both a warning and a reassurance, Bright’s Passage has echoes of voices as disparate as Ron Rash, Richard Bausch, and Neil Gaiman. But, as always, Josh Ritter’s haunting, graceful work is his own. His gifts are of singular beauty, and the world of American art is fortunate to have been blessed with his talent.”—Michael Koryta, author of So Cold the River and The Cypress House
 
“A perfect marriage of the miraculous and the mundane, Bright’s Passage is itself something of a miracle. Combining the pull of a big ballad and the intimacy of a whispered monologue, it satisfies on every level: from its deceptively casual style and unexpected coinages to its astute psychology and emotional power. I imagine this is precisely the book every fan of Ritter’s music wanted, but Bright’s Passage is far more than that.”—Wesley Stace, author of Misfortune and Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
 
“In his debut novel Josh Ritter displays the same love of language and historical detail, the same irresistible combination of wit and earnestness, that make him such a brilliant songwriter. He’s created a genuine work of literature.”—Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
 
“After earning his place as one of the most gifted songwriters of our time, Josh Ritter goes off and writes a terrific novel. Set in post–World War I Appalachia, Bright’s Passage charts the journey of a young, lost soldier, home from the war but in a sense still there. This is one of the finest first novels to come our way in a long time.”—Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco and The Gamble
 
“Ritter evokes war, violence and the fearful and numb responses to trauma, squaring them up in a hopeful, humble revelation.” Publishers Weekly
 
“Captures each scene with vivid details and sincere emotions. [An] expressive and darkly humorous tale…” Library Journal
 
“Ritter’s songs sometimes feel like full-blooded fables and folk tales, and his novel has a similar vision, the vision of a disturbing and beautiful dream…Reluctant readers might worry that a songwriter might not be able to sustain a longer narrative, but Steve Earle and Josh Ritter have, in their very different ways, written haunting ballads that sing off the page.” Poets & Writers Online

Library Journal
Back from the horrors of World War I, Henry Bright returns to his rural West Virginia home to rebuild his life. With him comes the angel Henry believes saved him numerous times on the battlefields of Europe. Henry elopes with his childhood sweetheart, greatly angering her family. When she dies in childbirth, Henry is left to care for his son while trying to evade his vengeful, crazy in-laws. Prompted by the angel, who communicates via Henry's horse, Henry sets fire to his cabin and accidentally starts a forest fire. Stalked by his wife's family and trying to escape the fire, Henry, his son, horse, and goat travel from town to town trying to do the angel's bidding to find a new mother for his son. VERDICT As singer-songwriter Ritter's fiction debut unveils the life of Henry Bright as a boy, a soldier, a husband, and a father, it captures each scene with vivid details and sincere emotions. This expressive and darkly humorous tale of a man desperately attempting to salvage his future while coping with his past will attract Ritter's fans and readers who enjoy a bit of magical realism in their fiction. [Author tour; see Prepub Alert, 1/9/11.]—Joy Gunn, Henderson Libs., NV
Kirkus Reviews

Returning from the traumas of the French battlefield, a young World War I veteran must face up to dark primal conflicts back home in West Virginia, where he is aided and instructed by an angel in the form of a horse.

Folk-rock singer-songwriter Ritter's first novel is a sometimes fatalistic, sometimes fanciful allegory about Henry Bright, a taciturn Appalachian whose wife dies in childbirth, leaving him with a son whom the angel proclaims the future King of Heaven. After burning down his cabin at the behest of the talking horse, he heads into an uncertain future with the baby, making his way through mountains that seem less familiar than they once did. Moving back and forth in time, the novel details Henry's off-kilter childhood, when he was paired off with his future wife, Rachel; his time in France, where one fellow soldier died in a trench in mid-sentence and another saved him from a massacre by falling dead on top of him; and his homecoming, when he is targeted by his wife's evil father and brutal, unbalanced sons. Aiming for the austere existentialism of Cormac McCarthy, the story unfolds with leisurely ease, told in lofty, even tones. Ritter has a knack for details, such as the difference between the German's spacious, cement-fortified trenches and the cramped ones hurriedly dug by the Americans. He's an assured stylist as well: "The fields in between the trenches were wind-whipped ponds of bodies, and even though the bodies were dead they could still pull you down with them; the dead were hungry that way." It will be difficult for some readers to get past the talking horse (not to mention the cranky goat that plays a supporting role), but those who are able to will enjoy an original, freshly observed novel that lingers after the final pages have been turned.

A tender, touching novel about a survivor of both World War I and a nasty family conflict.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781410445247
  • Publisher: Gale Cengage Learning
  • Publication date: 2/1/2012
  • Edition description: Large Print Edition
  • Pages: 298
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Josh Ritter
Josh Ritter is a songwriter from Moscow, Idaho. His albums include The Animal Years and So Runs the World Away. Bright’s Passage is his first novel. He lives in New York.
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Read an Excerpt

1

The baby boy wriggled in his arms, a warm, wet mass, softer than a goat and hairier than a rabbit kit. He held a blade over a candle flame for some time, then cut the cord and rubbed the baby with a wetted shirt. When this was done he laid the child in a basket near the fire and then stood at the head of the bed and looked down at his wife’s face a long moment. Abruptly, he bent low and placed his head near her mouth, staying all the while stone silent, waiting for some whisper from her lips. At last he stood straight once more, seeming to disappear into the still blackness of the low rafters as if he had become just another of the cabin’s shadows. The child began to cry, and he turned to look at it lying there by the glow of the dying fire.

The man paced the floor, biting the large front knuckle of his fist. At length he picked the child up from its basket and lifted the flap of heavy hide over the doorway, stepping out into the last of the blue twilight as the rising sun began to gild the topmost trees along the crest of the ridge.

Although he’d lived in its shadow almost his whole life, he stood there watching the sleeping leafy hulk closely as if for the first time. The forest was in the full trembling swell of high summer, the trees clamorous for sunlight, permitting only a few stray drops of gold to fall between their leaves and onto the scraggly undergrowth below. The ridge would offer nothing in the way of hindrance should men take it upon themselves to cross it. He again put his hand to his mouth and could be seen from the dark of the nearby chestnut tree to bite down hard on that knob-knuckled, much-abused fist. When the fit had passed he sat down cross-legged on the ground, his crying baby boy in his lap. The child’s eyes were shut tightly, but its paw searched the air waveringly for something until the man put his finger down and the little hand grasped it, held it. The two waited there a while.

By and by the angel spoke from the darkness by the chestnut tree. “She’s gone.”

“Course she’s gone! What am I doing out here with the baby if she ain’t gone?”

There was silence.

“Yeah,” he said after a while, his voice catching, “she’s gone.”

“That’s how it had to be.”

“You didn’t tell me that she had to die,” the man said accusingly. “You said to do whatever you told me to do and you’d keep us safe . . .”

The silence continued for so long that he knew the angel would not answer him, but he continued to sit there anyway, one arm holding the child close while the other arm worked a stick into the packed dirt. The child had red hair and cried and cried.

Nearby, a hutch held several hens clucking pointlessly at one another, and atop the hutch, white against the still-dark trees, stood the she-goat. Without his mother’s rifle he had not been able to hunt that winter, and he had been forced to slaughter the goat’s kids, and finally the billy, one by one. Now the white little widow stood atop the hutch all day every day, coming down to the dirt only to forage or to be milked.

Even when his wife was hugely pregnant she had milked the she-goat to keep the milk flowing, but yesterday morning her water had broken before she’d had the chance, and the ensuing afternoon and evening had been long and frightful. Now the goat’s udder was strained to bursting. He fetched the basket from the cabin, set it on a stump, and laid his son inside it. Then, kneeling by the stream, he washed his hands clean of blood and grime. He rose with much fatigue and made his way slowly across the bedraggled stretch of dirt to the hutch, lifted the goat down and squeezed the milk into a bucket.

When the bottom of the bucket was covered with milk, he took it to the baby. Dipping his finger in the froth, he held it to the boy’s suckling mouth. He sat and fed the baby like this as the last of the dark was drawn away and the dawning sky was revealed, pink and leafed with clouds. When the baby was done eating it seemed to crumble in upon itself, and for a terrible moment he thought that the infant had died, until, by the movement of its tiny fingers, it became clear that the boy was only sleeping.

He went inside and pulled a small black lacquer box off the shelf and from this box removed an ivory comb, yellowed with age and impossibly delicate. The comb’s handle was carved in the shape of a kneeling woman, her hands folded in prayer. She wore a long gown with flowers on the fringe, and her hair was plaited into two flowing tresses on either side of her face beneath a tiny crown. It was ancient, this comb, having belonged to his mother and before that to a Queen of England.

He sat near the head of the bed and began to comb the tangles from his wife’s hair. She had thrashed all night and the odor of stale sweat hung in the room, mixing with the plummy tang of blood. He spoke softly to her and touched her face often as he ran the comb through her hair, parting it at the scalp and arranging it on either side down her shoulders like the woman on the comb. Then he straightened her body in the bed, arranging her arms across her breasts so that her palms met in an attitude of prayer.

When this was done he took a dead black ember from the fire and, using a nail, mixed it with some of the goat’s milk in a tin cup. He pulled the Bible off the shelf, lifted the age-slackened cover of the heavy book, and, using the nail as a quill, beneath the names of long-dead others wrote:

Rachel Bright 1900–1920 Wife of Henry Bright

He lifted the nail from the page and surveyed the grisly black scrawl of the epitaph. Outside, the horse began to slap its tail against the trunk of the chestnut tree. He dipped the nail once more in the ink and added:

Mother to the Future King of Heaven

When this was done he held the Bible open on his knee and read the other names, but, except for his mother and father’s and his aunt Rebecca’s, they were all strangers to him. As he read, his hand worried absently through the pages and pulled a thistle from between the leaves where it had marked, like new grass over a grave, some passage that had been special to his mother. He looked now for the page, but it was lost to him, and he threw the thistle to the coals.

He went to the cabin door and looked out on the child, then gazed up to the hills again, watching them closely. Nothing but the quantity of the light upon the canvassed green trees had changed. He retrieved the long-handled shovel that he had last used for mucking out the chicken hutch and walked beneath the dark spread of the chestnut tree to where his horse stood.

“Now git,” he said. The horse was standing directly above where he wished to bury his wife. “Now git,” he said again, and pushed himself against the horse’s shoulder.

“We have to go from here,” said the horse. “We have to take the Future King of Heaven and leave.”

“Why?”

“That will be made known to you in due time, Henry Bright. First we have to leave this place. You will burn it down.” The horse bent to the patch of timothy grass and pulled up on it, munching with a broad satisfaction.

“Where are we gonna live if we burn it down?” Bright watched the plate-shaped muscles of the big jaws working.

“That will be answered once we leave,” said the angel.

Bright’s eyes wandered over the cabin he had grown up in. His father had gone away to the coal mines to earn money before Henry was born and had died in a cave-in, leaving his wife to raise their son amid a wilderness of tendrils and gnats that seemed always on the verge of devouring the little house. Much later, after his mother died and Henry had gone off to the War, the chimney had returned itself to the land, becoming a tunnel of vines and birds’ nests so thick that the first time he had tried to cook over the fire after he came back, the smoke had driven him outside and the mourning doves had thrown themselves from the eaves to the ground in confused jumbles. Sometimes, as they lay in bed at night, it had seemed to Rachel and him as if the whole cabin was hurtling at great speed through the dark, so loudly did the wind wail through the chinks in the caulking.

“Why do you want me to burn it down?” he asked again. “That’s our house. We ain’t got any other house.”

“Then stay here--”

“My boy needs a roof over his head.”

“--and let your son die.”

Bright shoved the animal again, to little effect. The horse stood its ground. “We can leave, angel, but I ain’t gonna burn it down!” he yelled. “It’s all I got left!”

On the stump behind him, the baby began to cry. Bright whirled around, shielding his own tears from the horse’s view. He stood with his back to the angel for a long time, his shoulders jerking violently at first and then slowing to a composed rise and fall. He ran the back of a hand across his face and looked at the cabin.

“Henry Bright,” the angel said, finally breaking the silence, “do as I say.”

The back of Bright’s head fell forward as his chin sank to his chest. “I can’t believe this,” he said. “All right. All right, I’ll burn it down.”

He ran a hand across his face again and then, turning back, he gave the horse a final push and the animal stubbornly relinquished his ground. Then he set about digging a grave for his wife next to that of his mother. When he was knee-deep in the ground, he heard the baby begin to cry again, and so he climbed up from the hole and moved the basket out of the sunlight. He fed the boy with the goat’s milk again and returned to digging. When he had finished the grave, he went inside and cut his wife out of her clothes.

Opening the large trunk, he looked down at what to dress her in. The white dress lay there, its stiff collar holding up determinedly against desperate age and the fungal dampness of high July. He reached beneath this garment to where the slip, with its tiny lace eyelets, waited primly. He had bought the slip for her in Fells Corner, an extravagant wedding gift that was almost the only thing she had worn until she was finally too big with child even for it to fit. It glowed out at him with a spectral whiteness in the ill-lit lowness of the cabin. After that came the brutal, delicate task of getting her stiffening body into the garment, but when he was done he again arranged her beautiful hair on either side of her shoulders, the way he liked it best. Finally, he opened the black lacquer box once more and removed a length of golden ribbon. He tied it around her head like a crown and stood up to survey his work.

He’d dug enough graves to know that she would fit perfectly into this one, but even so he stood there with her body in his arms, a rack of painful hesitation as he considered taking a few planks from the cabin in order to build her a box that would keep her from ending up so dirty.

“There’s no time!” the horse nickered behind him, as if it knew his mind, which perhaps it did. “Leave her buried deep and let’s go.”

He sat at the edge of the grave, his legs hanging into the hole, and dropped her in. He whispered something down at her, then he stood up and began to shovel in the dirt as a preacher might baptize someone in frigid water: quickly, to overcome the shock of the cold. He began to cry again. While he worked, the horse stood nearby, dark and still, perhaps gone to sleep. He filled the grave and then knelt, spreading leaves and sticks over the slight mound. The heat was coming on hard now, and sweat ran over his brow and into his eyes before continuing down his face and neck in the long, dusty canals that had already been carved by his tears.

When he stood up from the grave, he went to the cabin flap and pulled a handful of corn kernels from a sack hanging just inside the doorway where the animals could not get at it. Then he stood in the yard near the chickens. Stock-still, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, he let a few of the kernels fall from between his fingers. The three birds pecked at the kernels and then looked up, pinning him against the sky with their tiny black eyes and waiting for more. He chose the hen he would try for, and when it looked up at him again he let a few more kernels fall. When he and Rachel had been small, they used to play with the chicks in the yard of the elderly couple his mother had cooked for. Rachel liked to hold the little yellow things against the nape of her neck and would laugh as their feathers tickled her. He would lie very still on his back and they would see how many she could put on his chest.

The third time Bright let the kernels fall, the chickens did not look up but busily went about their feeding. He bent quickly, grabbed the hen by its head, and broke its neck. The goat watched on without emotion from atop her perch.

He plucked the body quickly, then went inside and placed it on a spit above the embers of the dying fire. He brought the baby in and laid it on the bed where it might survey the room it was born in. Maybe someday the Future King of Heaven would need to describe his own humble beginnings.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 28 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 12, 2011

    A Ballad The Length Of A Book

    Utterly beautiful and deeply real, this book is heavy-strewn with images that will stay with you long after you finish reading. Ritter is an incredible lyricist, and Bright's Passage is a powerful demonstration of that fact.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2012

    Sunning Rocks

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  • Posted December 22, 2011

    Hauntingly beautiful

    This book was hauntingly beautiful, just like some of Ritter's songs. The imagery was great, and painted an amazing picture of the world, one that I could see in my head as I read it, but one that was not easily definable. The meshing of a few different stories was well-thought out and made me want to keep reading. Wonderful book, and I look forward to the next one!

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  • Posted August 18, 2011

    AVOID THIS ONE

    Once again believed the hype, started it, read about 30 pages, returned it. Over-wrought use of language, stereotyped charachterizations, story went nowhere. If this is where we are headed in our "literature", then good books will be far and few between (which they already are). Back to some classics for me!

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 1, 2011

    Wix2525 Give Me a Break

    Not everyone is a bible thumper. Open your mind once in a while.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 31, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A great first effort

    Not perfect but along the road to that destination. I'll be waiting to see his next book, when it comes.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 31, 2011

    Agreed

    Offensive! Could not stand to read this trash.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 30, 2011

    Stopped after only 22 pages

    In that short space I found myself subjected to the Bible burned as kindling to burn down a house and many uses of the word 'GD' which I find utterly tasteless and quite offensive. Even without these factors the proclamations of this word added no value to the story and seemed only to highlight the strong possibility of a limited vocabulary from a person professing to be a wordsmith. In this abrupted reading it is not possible to address plot or even depth of characterization, but most stories hook you in a short period of time. It did not happen for me and then the negative factors overrode my desire to find SOME redeeming or intriguing path that this author wished to have me follow.

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 23, 2011

    Well done Mister Ritter!!

    Have been a Ritter fan for years Often thought his lyrics could be worked into book or possibly a short story collection. I love to read books by new authors and am so pleased to have found this. Now my only problem is deciding which genre I like best. Just to be safe, keep the music and the books coming. A job well done!! Thanks

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    Posted October 30, 2012

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