The School on Heart's Content Road

The School on Heart's Content Road

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by Carolyn Chute

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Carolyn Chute’s newest paperback returns to her beloved town of Egypt, Maine and delivers a rousing, politically charged portrait of those living on the margins of our society.
The School on Heart’s Content Road begins with Mickey Gammon, a fifteen-year-old dropout who has been evicted from home and seeks shelter in the Settlement—a…  See more details below


Carolyn Chute’s newest paperback returns to her beloved town of Egypt, Maine and delivers a rousing, politically charged portrait of those living on the margins of our society.
The School on Heart’s Content Road begins with Mickey Gammon, a fifteen-year-old dropout who has been evicted from home and seeks shelter in the Settlement—a rural cooperative in alternative energy, farm produce, and local goods, founded by “the Prophet.” Falsely demonized by the media as a compound of sin, the Settlement’s true nature remains foreign to outsiders. There, Mickey meets another deserted child, six-year-old “Secret Agent Jane”—a cunning, beautiful girl whose mother is in jail on false drug charges and who prowls the Settlement in heart-shaped sunglasses, imagining her childish plans to ruin the community will win her mother’s freedom. As they struggle to adjust to their new, complex surrogate family, Mickey and Jane witness the mounting unrest within the Settlement’s ranks, which soon builds to a shocking crescendo.
Vehement and poetic, The School on Heart’s Content Road questions the nature of family, culture, and authority in an intensely diverse nation. It is an urgent plea from those who have been shoved to the fringes of society, but who refuse to be silenced.

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Editorial Reviews

John Gregory Brown
Both sympathy and rage are everywhere: in a mother's anguished efforts to acquire pain medication for her dying infant, in a girl's desperate longing to be reunited with her mother. Page by page, the anger and frustration build, not simply in the characters but in the book itself, and it is easy to fear that the message will overtake the story. The saving grace in this novel, as in all of Chute's work, is the levity amidst all the anger. Again and again, she's just plain funny, and to be that funny, of course, you've also got to be smart.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Chute, author of the acclaimed The Beans of Egypt, Maine, returns to Egypt with an emotional but uneven novel portraying the St. Onge Settlement, a rural co-op community led by the mythic, flawed, Gordon St. Onge, hero of the downtrodden who people the Settlement along with Gordon's wives and children. Through her distinctive, muscular prose and vivid depictions of Maine's resilient residents, Chute revisits familiar themes: the government's injustices toward the poor, restrictive gun legislation, faults in the education system and the evils of corporations. The novel also defends and demystifies the militia movement (Chute is involved with the 2nd Maine Militia, a grassroots organization advocating for the working class). The narrative, fractured with a multitude of perspectives, jumps between Gordon, Richard "Rex" York, head of the local militia, and Settlement kids Mickey Gammon, 15, and precocious six-year-old Jane Meserve, whose mother is incarcerated on spurious drug charges. By turns inspiring, then preachy, Chute, who in the acknowledgments says there are five completed novels about the Settlement, which might explain the unresolved story lines, has an undeniable talent for depicting humanity at its most impassioned and impoverished. (Nov.)

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Library Journal

In 1995, just after moving to Maine, I sat in a diner eating blueberry pancakes and listening to a conversation in an adjacent booth. I could hear words like militia and mobilizing and heated discussion of the wrongs perpetrated by local and state government and of how to right them. Little did I know that I may have been seated near Rex York and Gordon St. Onge, two main characters in Chute's new novel, which is set in and around a rural, communal/intentional living group known as the Settlement in fictional Egypt, ME. Troubled 15-year-old Mickey Gammon is befriended by local militia leader Rex and then Gordon, the Settlement leader often spoken of as The Prophet. Soon we meet six-year-old Jane Meserve, whose mother is jailed on exaggerated drug charges, and Gordon's multiple wives-including 15 year-old Bree, who mobilizes a march on the Maine State House. Of course, the Feds are always close by, watching the Settlement's growing influence. The first third of this work, Chute's first novel after 1999's critically panned Snow Man, is a welcome return to the mastery of character description and setting that distinguishes her earlier works. But, all too soon, the reader loses faith amid a jumble of diatribe, stereotype, repetition, plot dead ends, and the relentless hero-worship of Gordon St. Onge. Optional. [See Prepub Alert, LJ7/08.]
—Jenn B. Stidham

Donna Rifkind
Since 1984, Carolyn Chute has dedicated her literary career to providing a voice for one specific group of people: the poverty-stricken citizens who live and work in rural western Maine. In five novels of wildly varying quality, including her bestselling debut, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Chute has made the fictional town of Egypt her Yoknapatawpha, striving to reveal the many-sidedness of the hardscrabble folks who dwell there -- their violence and tenderness, their cruelty and nobility, their disenfranchisement and heroism.

"Extravagant" might seem a strange word to describe a novelist so singularly devoted to championing the poor, but it is exactly the right word for Chute. Everything about her writing is profuse: her unrestrained emotion, her larger-than-life characterizations, her restless shifts in point of view, her frequent forays into political speechifying, and her often quite beautiful landscape descriptions. Lavish and ardent, Chute's outpourings can be rivetingly effective and, just as often, confoundingly wayward. Both tendencies are evident throughout The School on Heart's Content Road, in which Chute attempts to make a case for localized militia movements and for the marginalized but undaunted individuals who join them.

If this novel, with its many dozens of characters and a relentlessly changing perspective, could be said to have a center, it would lie in the predicaments of two unlucky children during the summer and autumn of the year 2000. Six-year-old Jane Meserve is a precocious mixed-race girl whose mother has been sent to prison on trumped-up drug charges. Lacking a hands-on father, Jane ends up in the care of her grandfather's friends in a community on the outskirts of town called the Settlement, a collective devoted to farming, furniture making, and alternative energy. Its leader, sometimes known as the Prophet, is a charismatic, Bunyanesque personality named Gordon St. Onge.

The other young victim of tragic family circumstances here is Mickey Gammon, a 15-year-old dropout who's been living in a makeshift tree house since his own household, plagued by illness and financial hardship, recently fell apart. Mickey's rescue arrives in the form of a powerful, enigmatic father figure, Rex York, "a kind of lighthouse in the fog of Mickey's life." Another in the line of larger-than-life working-class heroes who populate Chute's fiction -- among them Lloyd Barrington in Merry Men, Robert Drummond in Snow Man, and Gordon St. Onge here -- Rex is a 50-ish Vietnam veteran who serves as captain of the Border Mountain Militia, a loose affiliation of pro-gun, anti–big business locals. Along with the militia's other members, Rex offers Mickey a surrogate family, a sense of purpose, and, eventually, a place to live at the Settlement, whose sociopolitical objectives have become, over time, more or less congruent with those of the militia.

Jane and Mickey serve as unofficial tour guides for the reader as they try to negotiate these two mysterious worlds: the industrious hive of the Settlement, which operates among so many rumors of polygamy, pedophilia, pagan worship, and potential government siege that some townspeople are beginning to call it "Waco, Maine"; and the militia, with its clandestine meetings to promulgate calls to action against the evils of corporate America and to discuss and handle an array of firearms.

But Jane and Mickey are far from the only witnesses to these activities. Chute also offers a wide variety of other commentators, including many St. Onge family members (it turns out that Settlement founder Gordon St. Onge does indeed have multiple wives); the deceitful bleating of an omnipresent television set (the "Voice of Mammon") that exhorts American citizens to labor and consume mindlessly; and -- in a nice touch worthy of Louise Erdrich -- a high-flying, all-seeing crow.

What story, exactly, is this cacophony of voices trying to articulate? In fact, after all the ingredients have been gathered together, Chute's finished product turns out to be all simmer but not a lot of stew. It's not that nothing happens, exactly; it's that the build-up to the action carries more weight than the action itself. Those whispers of Waco echo ominously throughout the narrative, but the only government standoff involves a ragtag procession of Settlement teenagers marching ineffectively through a hallway in the State House in Augusta, yelling about corporate domination while brandishing kazoos and squirt guns. Meanwhile, much earlier in the novel, when several of Chute's most pitiable characters meet fateful ends, their deaths are mentioned so casually that we're robbed of the opportunity to care.

Chute's characterizations are every bit as diffuse as her plot. While she offers an extensive and descriptive character list at the back of the book, encouraging readers to consult it in numerous footnotes, these addenda only serve to remind one of the sketchiness of these many personalities. Except for Jane and Mickey, who seem like real and complicated people, cartoonishness abounds: Rex is a laconic G.I. Joe, while Gordon, who exhibits both Christlike empathy (he has an "inability to separate his meaty heart from the wailing hearts" of women) and superhero strength ("His voice is like a big drum.... His neck is as wide as four necks"), never quite comes into focus as the mesmerizing prophet that others claim he is.

One of the reasons for the general lack of discipline could be that Chute, who has been working on this novel since the early 1990s, has planned for it to be part of a series of five books that take place around the Settlement, each concentrating on a different set of characters. In an interview in September with Publishers Weekly, Chute admitted, "I write a bunch of stuff, whole piles of stuff.... It's like photography -- you take tons of pictures, then you figure out what you're going to do with them." There is plenty of evidence of shuffling going on here, but not nearly enough shape or momentum. For all these flaws, though, it would be a mistake to condescend to Chute as a backwoods amateur. That is not what she is at all. She's a literate, passionate writer who has allowed her extravagance -- of talent, of emotion, and of her estimation of our patience -- to overwhelm and enfeeble her storytelling. --Donna Rifkind

Donna Rifkind's reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The American Scholar, and other publications. In 2006, she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

From the Publisher

“Brave, passionate and raw, fiercely written . . . A profoundly human novel . . . Absolutely one of a kind.”—USA Today

“A roiling stew of cajoling comedy, political diatribe, and incisively rendered portraits of rural poverty and despair.”—The Washington Post

“A triumph of characterization and color . . . Vivid . . . Breathtaking . . . Enjoy the ride.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“[A] vibrant pastiche of a novel . . . [with] energy-on-the-loose prose and anti-establishment atmospherics.”—Chicago Tribune

“Carolyn Chute emerges as a modern-day Dickensian voice for the losers in class warfare. . . . [The School on Heart's Content Road is her]best book to date. . . . We have our Dickens now.”—San Diego Union Tribune

“Raw and strong and vivid, with deep resounding echoes of Faulkner and Upton Sinclair . . . Chute’s a scientist, brilliant and mad, lighting matches under beakers, mixing compounds, breaking words into their smallest divisible parts.”—The Los Angeles Times

“Like a ferocious bulletin from an alternate universe—tumbling, pell-mell, brilliant and strange—comes this explosive, discomfiting . . . beautiful novel.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Conscience-altering . . . Chute bares a hidden America . . . [offering] perspectives on the need for justice and mercy, a safe house for the heart.”—O, the Oprah Magazine

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The School on Heart's Content Road 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
AmesburySkipper More than 1 year ago
Carolyn Chute drops the smell, taste and especially the conversational sound of America in the 2000s into your lap, and makes you enjoy the terror of facing our surreal new reality. Nothing is not touched: religion, politics, morals, childhood & adolescence, sickness, insanity, progress, philosophy, environment, and, of course, the State of Maine. This is Chute's current new masterpiece - a joy to read.