Love and Lament

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A dauntless heroine coming of age at the turn of the twentieth century confronts the hazards of patriarchy and prejudice, and discovers the unexpected opportunities of World War I
Set in rural North Carolina between the Civil War and the Great War, Love and Lament chronicles the hardships and misfortunes of the Hartsoe family.
Mary Bet, the youngest of nine ...

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Love and Lament

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A dauntless heroine coming of age at the turn of the twentieth century confronts the hazards of patriarchy and prejudice, and discovers the unexpected opportunities of World War I
Set in rural North Carolina between the Civil War and the Great War, Love and Lament chronicles the hardships and misfortunes of the Hartsoe family.
Mary Bet, the youngest of nine children, was born the same year that the first railroad arrived in their county. As she matures, against the backdrop of Reconstruction and rapid industrialization, she must learn to deal with the deaths of her mother and siblings, a deaf and damaged older brother, and her father’s growing insanity and rejection of God.
In the rich tradition of Southern gothic literature, John Milliken Thompson transports the reader back in time through brilliant characterizations and historical details, to explore what it means to be a woman charting her own destiny in a rapidly evolving world dominated by men.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Born in 1887, the year the railroad comes to fictional Haw County, N.C., Mary Bet Hartsoe is tough, humble, independent, and enduring—a true North Carolina heroine. Thompson’s second novel (after The Reservoir) follows Mary Bet as she grows from a curious six-year-old who mistakes a circuit-riding preacher for the Devil to a survivor of war, disease, love, and progress. By 15, Mary Bet has seen her mother and her eight older siblings die, including beloved deaf brother Siler, who perishes in a puzzling accident. She is left alone to care for her father, Cicero, a Civil War veteran and storeowner now suffering physical and mental deterioration. Eventually she takes a job as a courthouse clerk and sometime deputy working for her cousin; after he leaves to fight in World War I, Mary Bet becomes North Carolina’s first female sheriff. Thompson perfectly captures the Carolina Piedmont’s sights, sounds, and flavors and convincingly depicts the turn-of-the-century South—haunted by the Civil War, and embracing old-time religion and new-fangled machinery and ideas. Underlying and uplifting his narrative is Mary Bet’s vivid point of view: hiding while her grandmother breaks up her grandfather’s drunken poker game, helping the sheriff chase down moonshiners, watching Cicero and Able, the son of slaves, try to grow bananas in North Carolina’s climate. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“A seamlessly told and scrupulously detailed history of the Hartsoe clan of Haw County, North Carolina, Love and Lament is that rare novel that brings the gritty, rural past to vivid life.  I could very nearly smell the moonshine (the moonshiners too!).  Pass a few hours with Mary Bet Hartsoe and family.  You won’t regret it.” —T. R. Pearson, author of Jerusalem Gap and A Short History of a Small Place

“Mary Bet Hartsoe, the protagonist of John Milliken Thompson’s beautifully told new novel Love and Lament, is a character of such intelligent and curious sensibility I would follow her anywhere.  And I did, and so will you as she takes us through some of the most turbulent times in our history while negotiating, with integrity and grace, the brittle demands of family and community.” —Michael Parker, author of The Watery Part of the World
“Love and Lament is an ambitious and exhilarating novel of the South at the turn of the last century. It is a book you’ll devour and savor. It will remind you why you started reading novels in the first place—to be enchanted, to be carried away from your world and dropped into a world more substantial and incandescent. John Milliken Thompson knows that every story is many stories, and he handles this complex tale of romance, family, race relations, and secrets with intelligence, grace, and tenderness. He has breathed life into Mary Bet Hartsoe and her benighted family, and they will breathe life into you.” —John Dufresne, author of No Regrets, Coyote

"An appealing historical novel that blends gothic and plainly romantic themes." —Kirkus

"Thompson perfectly captures the Carolina Piedmont’s sights, sounds, and flavors and convincingly depicts the turn-of-the-century South—haunted by the Civil War, and embracing old-time religion and new-fangled machinery and ideas. Underlying and uplifting his narrative is Mary Bet’s vivid point of view." —Publishers Weekly

"Love and Lament is a monument to memory in its most powerful comingling of past and present. This is an ambitious and engrossing book, difficult to put down and, at times, almost too painful to contemplate...Thomposon, who seems to be a natural heir to [Eudora Welty], has written a wonderful book..." —Rumpus

“Thompson recreates the years after the Civil War with breathtaking clarity; it's a rare joy to sink into a novel and believe in it so completely. I rooted for Mary Bet, and worried over each step she took within a family that seemed mysteriously fated for disaster.” —Ann Napolitano, author of A Good Hard Look

“In his new novel, John Milliken Thompson visits again the fertile ground that he explored so satisfyingly in The Reservoir: the south at the turn of the prior century; the trials of families under strain from within and without; and the mysterious relationships between good and evil, God and man. Love and Lament is a powerful book that you'll not soon forget.” —Jon Clinch, author of Finn, Kings of the Earth, and The Thief of Auschwitz

“Thompson’s Love and Lament offers us a young daughter of a still much-broken South, Mary Bet Hartsoe, as she witnesses the excesses of long-held jealousies, madness, religion and war, suffers the loss one after another of her family members, and yet marches on to become more than a woman of her time. Her story proves how the memory of loss is itself more fearsome than death, and yet even this fear has its limits once Mary Bet’s future beckons her.  It’s a wonderful journey to behold.” —Michelle Hoover, author of The Quickening

"If you live in the rural South, it is a rare delight to find a writer like John Milliken Thompson, who captures familiar landscapes with a grace and freshness and also takes you so vividly and surprisingly into the past. But it's his beautifully drawn, completely original characters—Mary Bet, Cicero, Siler, Flora—who made me fall in love with this book, and who will appeal to readers everywhere." —Belle Boggs, author of Mattaponi Queen: Stories

"...the voice of the narrator feels authentic to the era, and Mary Bet springs off the page as a character. She is confident but conflicted, and her realistic journey will keep readers engaged."—Booklist

"In Love and Lament, John Milliken Thompson binds together the best of the southern gothic tradition of William Faulkner and postmodern studies of human character and psyche like Joanna Greenberg's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Mary Bet is a deeply sympathetic character, even—or especially—in her darkest moments, and Thompson's handling of detail makes the novel's early 20th-century setting feel real. Love and Lament captures the complexity of coming of age in the face of death and rapid industrialization, and the sense that although things will never be the same, life may yet endure."—Shelf Awareness
“John Milliken Thompson’s Love and Lament is a sweeping novel that gets everything right—the details, the panorama—but mainly it allows you to experience the life of another time, about a hundred years ago, in the soul and mind of a young woman whose passions and worries could be your own. In other words, Thompson makes that art form called the novel do the work it is meant to do—thoroughly and beautifully.” —Clyde Edgerton, author of The Night Train and The Bible Salesman

"I found myself in love with this novel of grief, passion and enduring family bonds...Love and Lament is the best novel I have read in a couple of years." —Deborah Pate, The Roanoke Times

"John Milliken Thompson transports the reader back in time through memorable characters, meticulous detail, and a voice that brings the past to vivid life." —Deep South Magazine
“Love and Lament
is a beautiful book of coping and almost love stories. It is a book of poetry written in prose. It is slow paced, literarily matched to the pacing of its setting. And, really, it's a book about everyday life in a recovering South.” —Quail Bell Magazine

Kirkus Reviews
A North Carolina girl is the unlikely survivor of a host of tribulations between the Civil War and World War I. Mary Bet, the no-nonsense hero of the second historical novel by Thompson (The Reservoir, 2011), is the youngest of nine children raised by a rural store owner and his wife. If that seems like a lot of characters for a novelist to juggle, Thompson dispatches them with chilling efficiency: pneumonia, accidents and other misfortunes kill off the clan one by one, until by the turn of the century, the only Hartsoes remaining are Mary Bet and her father, R.C., who soon lands in an asylum. So this is Mary Bet's story alone, but she's stalked by a lifelong feeling she's been cursed, from her fear of the devil as a girl to the boy who got away as an adolescent to her adult sense that she wasn't told everything about the death of her favorite brother. The early chapters of this book are somewhat plodding, as Thompson introduces family members only to eradicate most of them, with digressions into moonshining, religion and quixotic research into perpetual motion. But once the story is firmly Mary Bet's, it picks up speed, grace and a touch of dark humor. When the town sheriff enlists during WWI, she's quickly promoted to the county's first female sheriff (albeit a temporary one), and it's clear that the ghosts of all those family members have toughened her up enough to face bootleggers and thieves. The changing South looms over the narrative, as the economy shifts from agrarian to industrial and racism warps the civic character. But Thompson has taken pains not to let history intrude too much: This is a more intimate narrative, a study of one woman's reward for stubborn persistence. Though slow to start, an appealing historical novel that blends gothic and plainly romantic themes.
Library Journal
In a family beset by extraordinary hardships and misfortunes, Mary Bet Hartsoe, the youngest and rapidly becoming the last living of nine children, comes of age in rural North Carolina during the late 1880s through World War I. Although industrialization and war bring about many changes—progress, in the form of railroads, electricity, telephones, and indoor plumbing—the old value systems continue their hold. Women cannot vote, non-Christians cannot hold public office, and African Americans are treated as inferior. As a woman, Mary Bet is drawn toward the future, attracted by what she sees as the dance of life between women and men, yet the past maintains its fierce grip on her as she battles to rectify the balance of her days against the weight of what she has lived already. VERDICT Beginning with the book's apt title, Thompson (The Reservoir) has written an engaging and intriguing portrayal of America's Reconstruction and industrialization period to draw readers into an engrossing story, told with strong characterization and meticulous attention to detail.—Joyce Townsend, Pittsburg, CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590515877
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 8/6/2013
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 988,097
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John Milliken Thompson is the author of The Reservoir (Other Press, 2011). His articles have appeared in Smithsonian, Washington Post, Islands, and other publications, and his short stories have been published in Louisiana Literature, South Dakota Review, and other literary journals. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Arkansas and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Read an Excerpt

   “You horse’s ass,” her grandfather was saying, “you surely don’t expect me to fall for that.” He was holding some cards, as were the other five men, and there was money in the middle of the table. They were drinking whiskey from glasses that sparkled like gold in the lantern light, and sometimes they’d pour more from a brown bottle. “The Devil’s own medicine,” her grandmother called it, though Mary Bet did not know why. She watched with fascination, not paying much attention to the talk. Then Captain Granddaddy roared, “Goddamn if I ain’t the luckiest son of a bitch since Jesus met General Lee,” and drew all the money toward himself with two big hands.
   Mary Bet sat there feeling her face flame, waiting for the Devil to come take her grandfather away. Surely he would hear the cussing and come for his medicine—how foolish her grandfather had been. She thought it possible she herself would be turned to stone for hearing such a thing. She wanted to leave, but now she was afraid to move and sat there like a block of ice, hoping that no one, not even the Devil, would know where she was. Her head burned so, it must be close to the furnace of hell already. “God,” she prayed, a tear rolling down her cheek, “I promise never to leave my room at night.”
   The card dealing and wagering went on, with the piles of money growing in front of some of the men and disappearing in front of others with an unseen logic. They kept drinking and getting louder and cussing more freely, and Mary Bet grew so used to the words that they no longer bothered her. She thought the men were like big goats with their beards and something always in their mouths, whether it was cigars or chewing tobacco or whiskey, their heads up and bleating when they wanted something they didn’t get. She almost laughed. Suddenly the room got very quiet.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Love and Lament is set in the decades following the Civil War. What impact does this have on the characters? How does Thompson evoke this historical period, and in what ways are the characters a product of their time?

2. The Devil continuously reappears throughout the novel, in dreams and superstitions. What is the Devil’s role in this novel? Is there something in the novel that represents the opposite—perhaps like a messenger of good fortune?

3. What kind of God is in Love and Lament? How does he judge man? What are Cicero’s and Mary Bet’s relationships with this God? How do these relationships change throughout the course of the novel?

4. Cicero beings seriously to question his fate after the death of his daughter Myrt. On page 116, he exclaims that he does not deserve the fate God has given him. This is a crucial development in Cicero’s character. Does Mary Bet ever reach a similar realization after reflecting on her life, and if so, at which point?

5. The Hartsoe family’s history influences each of its generations. Discuss the fate of the Hartsoe family and its origin. How does this history influence Mary Bet’s? What is the significance that, at the age of nine, Mary Bet’s mother gives her the family Bible and defines her role as the keeper of family history? What makes Cicero’s fall into madness such a fitting turn of events?

6. At the moment when Mary Bet aims her gun at her father’s horse, “She was just as scared of failing her father as of shooting the horse” (pg.125). For her entire life, Mary Bet maintains an intense sense of responsibility toward her father. She covers for him whenever he slips from a sane or moral path, and for a long time does not wish to marry or leave home. Why does Mary Bet hold such devotion to him?

7. After Mary Bet puts down her father’s horse, she wishes Siler were there to comfort her: “he was the only one who would understand and there would be no need for words, or signs either. Just his presence, and his deep, knowing eyes, looking for something long gone” (pg. 126). Why didn’t Mary Bet cry after she pulled the trigger? Does this act cause a shift in her character?

8. Siler goes through a significant transformation as he enters adulthood. What initiates this change? How do you interpret Siler’s death and his final message, “I have make a terrible mistake” (pg. 343)? Mary Bet considers the grammatical error to be an intentional attempt to place himself halfway between the past and the present. Do you agree?

9. Upon moving to Williamsboro and getting to know her fellow tenant, Amanda Tomkins, “Mary Bet regarded her friend, hidden behind her deformities and her suffering, and decided there was something noble about her” (pg. 228). What does Mary Bet learn from Amanda? What does Mary Bet learn from her friendship with Flora, and what makes each of these friendships equally important?

10. Towards the end of the novel, Mary Bet visits her father and learns from him not to throw her life away because of the things she remembers from her past. Discuss the significance of Mary Bet’s final dream, which contains the last appearance of the Devil, and her inability to recall its details in the morning.

11. Before Leon returns home, Mary Bet has a premonition that he will die in the war. Yet, he makes it back safely and they marry. In what ways is this a turning point against the Hartsoe curse and against the idea of fearing one’s own memories?

12. How does Love and Lament compare to Thompson’s previous novel, The Reservoir? Discuss similar themes, character traits, and use of style.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 16, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The year 1887, was special for Haw County, it was the year that

    The year 1887, was special for Haw County, it was the year that the town got their first railroad, but for the Hartsoe family, it was the year their daughter, Mary Bet was born. Mary Bet suffered the loss of most her family member by the time she was fifteen and as she grows into a young woman she is faced with even more difficulties and must find a way to survive the worst.

    Even though the book starts out with a family tree that warns readers of just how many lives are lost in the Hartsoe family, the emotional journey will be exhausting at times. The first half of the book is full of pain, grief and heartache, while the second half is focused on survival and perseverance. Thompson does a remarkable job of writing a poetic prose that will immediately whisk readers back in time. The rich metaphors bring the setting of Haw County alive, while Mary Bet’s strength will leave readers in awe. The narration was a bit strange at times, almost as though it is an outsider looking in and there is more to the story that is being glossed over. But overall, this is a must read for Southern Gothic Literature fans. 

    This review was written for the My Sister's Books bookstore.
    This review was originally posted on the Ariesgrl Book Reviews website.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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