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The Kept: A Novel

The Kept: A Novel

3.5 55
by James Scott

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Set in rural New York state at the turn of the twentieth century, superb new talent James Scott makes his literary debut with The Kept—a propulsive novel reminiscent of the works of Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, in which a mother and her young son embark on a quest to avenge a terrible and violent tragedy that has


Set in rural New York state at the turn of the twentieth century, superb new talent James Scott makes his literary debut with The Kept—a propulsive novel reminiscent of the works of Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, in which a mother and her young son embark on a quest to avenge a terrible and violent tragedy that has shattered their secluded family.

In the winter of 1897, a trio of killers descends upon an isolated farm in upstate New York. Midwife Elspeth Howell returns home to the carnage: her husband, and four of her children, murdered. Before she can discover her remaining son Caleb, alive and hiding in the kitchen pantry, another shot rings out over the snow-covered valley. Twelve-year-old Caleb must tend to his mother until she recovers enough for them to take to the frozen wilderness in search of the men responsible.

A scorching portrait of a merciless world—of guilt and lost innocence, atonement and retribution, resilience and sacrifice, pregnant obsession and primal adolescence—The Kept introduces an old-beyond-his-years protagonist as indelible and heartbreaking as Mattie Ross of True Grit or Jimmy Blevins of All the Pretty Horses, as well as a shape-shifting mother as enigmatic and mysterious as a character drawn by Russell Banks or Marilynne Robinson. 

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 01/01/2014
Enter the harsh winter weather of upstate New York in 1897, which from the start plays a role in this impressive debut. Midwife Elspeth Howell returns to her isolated farm and walks from the train station under a sky and clouds as oppressive as her sins: anger, covetousness, and thievery. Upon reaching the homestead, she finds her husband and all but one of her five children, her son Caleb, murdered. A grim story of revenge develops into much more as mother and son track down those responsible, and young Caleb is faced with understanding his mother's crimes and ultimately forgiving her. As they close in on their quarry, the weather escalates into a fierce snowstorm, and they must battle ice and frigid temperatures as well as hired murderers. VERDICT Merging the Southern gothic tale with a style recalling the Western, this action-packed novel would make a terrific film. The author has crafted a laudable, compelling, tightly woven tale with memorable characters, Caleb in particular. Scott writes with an eloquence that urges the reader to return to passages and reread them just to admire his superb skill. Highly recommended.—Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH
The New York Times - Ivy Pochoda
If not for the author's sparse, elegant prose, twanged with puritanical patois, The Kept might be simply agonizing. Instead, it is a haunting narrative, salvaged by precise language that never overreaches or oversells. Although there are moments when Mr. Scott might have gone lighter on excruciating details—a finger probing a bullet wound, the radiating agony of a cracked fingernail, a body brutally crushed under a block of ice—for the most part, his restraint is an excellent foil for the moral and physical desolation of his story and characters.
The New York Times Book Review - Alyson Hagy
Scott is a master of mood…and Scott's characters are dark brush strokes of appetite and deceit. His central concern, as a storyteller, is the dynamic of consequence. People, in this novel, are the sum of their emotional failures…The Kept is gothic in both structure and atmosphere. Violence comes swiftly, with no warning. The strong are without sentiment. The weak retain nothing but shards of their remembered affections. No family is whole. No love can be complete.
Publishers Weekly
★ 11/11/2013
Scott’s accomplished debut—a dark, brooding tale set in upstate New York in the late 19th century—follows a compulsive midwife who must deal with the tragic consequences of her actions in order to form a family. As Elspeth Howell, mother of five, tromps through a blizzard to return home after weeks spent performing her duties, she finds a grisly bloodbath: her Native American husband, Jorah, and four children have been murdered. Only middle son Caleb, 12, survives. Startled while hiding in the pantry, the boy accidentally shoots his mother. Elspeth survives both this event and the flames that decimate the cabin after Caleb attempts to gruesomely burn the stacked bodies of his family members. The novel dips briskly back in time to reveal that Elspeth’s children were all abducted as infants from other households, since she is unable to conceive children of her own. The price of these crimes manifests itself in the tragedies she now faces. Elspeth and Caleb decide to track down the killers, and this expansive search, steeped in Elspeth’s need for revenge and Caleb’s search for his true lineage, expands the breadth of Scott’s novel and forces mother and son to adopt new identities in distant locales. Together, they face a host of angry villains, any of which could’ve been responsible for the executions. Scott has produced a work of historical fiction that is both atmospheric and memorable, suffused with dread and suspense right up to the last page. (Jan.)
Margot Livesy
“What a gripping story teller James Scott is and what a dark and lyrical novel he has written. The Kept is a thrilling debut”
New York Times Book Review
“Scott is a master of mood… This landscape is more mythic than historic, and Scott’s characters are dark brush strokes of appetite and deceit. His central concern, as a storyteller, is the dynamic of consequence.”
USA Today
“Graceful…unsettling…The Kept is a novel where most everyone harbors dark secrets and most characters are not who they appear to be.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Quite an impressive debut novel…James Scott’s descriptions of nature and his ability to reveal two complex, tormented people are what make the book live and even sing, albeit a mournful, heartbroken music.”
“A vivid, violent, beautiful book...At turns tender and harsh, twisted and lyrical.”
Boston Globe
“[A] bravura debut....It is a testament to the author’s artisan-like control that he is able to tease us with Elspeth’s crimes from the outset and yet keep the terrible measure of her dereliction at bay until the final clinch, as breathless as it is inevitable.”
Margot Livesey
“What a gripping story teller James Scott is and what a dark and lyrical novel he has written. The Kept is a thrilling debut”
“Scott’s first novel epitomizes what’s great in this renaissance [of literary Westerns]: economy of dialogue; unsparing realism; the giddiness and terror induced by the knowledge of liberty.”
The Rumpus
“Half beautiful, half disturbing, [James Scott’s lyrical images] decorate The Kept like frescoes in a crumbling cathedral…Feels like the shell of a Cormac McCarthy novel filled with the intricate yearning and familial strife of a Lorca play…A gripping combination.”
New York Times
“Dark and mysterious… A novel whose daring is found in its bleakness… The plot unfolds with a weighty languor reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy… sparse, elegant… haunting.”
Tom Perrotta
“The Kept starts out as a straightforward revenge narrative, then slowly deepens into something much more mysterious and compelling. James Scott has written a riveting and memorable debut novel.”
Ron Rash
“With its vivid sense of time and place, lyrical writing, and complex questions of what constitutes a family, The Kept is an outstanding debut by a bright new voice in American fiction.”
Kevin Wilson
“The Kept is a deeply moving, disconcerting novel… Scott manages something quite difficult here, balancing both terror and tenderness with apparent ease. By the end of the book, you’ll be convinced that he can do just about anything.”
Julianna Baggott
“The Kept is a brutal and beautiful novel. Written with emotional ascendancy, these rock-ribbed characters illuminate loss, desire, and love. James Scott’s debut is a celebration of bracing action, evocative rendering of the past, and literary precision.”
Hannah Tinti
“The Kept is both a thrilling adventure and a literary triumph. Following the journey of a mother and son who lose everything, only to find each other, James Scott’s haunting tale will astonish and enchant you, the words echoing long after the final pages have turned.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-05
The crimes of a benighted woman spark horrific blowback; in its wake, this wrenching first novel from the Massachusetts-based Scott tracks two lost souls in the New York hinterland of the late 19th century. Elspeth Howell is a midwife returning home after a monthslong absence. She trudges through falling snow to their remote farmhouse only to find husband Jorah and four of their children shot dead. The sole survivor is 12-year-old Caleb, who had watched the three killers from the barn. It gets worse; Caleb shoots his mother by accident; his anguish is profound. Then the house burns down, the unintended consequence of Caleb's funeral pyre. Elspeth survives. The carnage is linked to her own crimes of opportunity. She and Jorah, a Native American, had tried to conceive, but Elspeth was barren and became seized by the compulsion to steal babies. None of the children are hers. A deeply religious woman, she aches with the consciousness of her sins and yearns for divine punishment but is unable to stop. A tip steers Caleb and the recovering Elspeth, in pursuit of the killers, to Watersbridge, the gritty town beside Lake Erie from which she stole Caleb. With the revenge motif as a backbeat, the pair, haunted though they are, improvise new lives for themselves. Elspeth, disguised as a man, finds work hauling ice. The resourceful Caleb is hired as a handyman at a brothel. The owner, a smooth-as-silk villain, kills without compunction, and Caleb guesses correctly that clues here will help his search. He encounters two fearsomely angry men, both indirect victims of Elspeth's thefts. Yet, for all the collateral damage she has caused, Elspeth has a core of decency sufficient to retain our sympathy. Caleb is spun around like a top through heartbreaking discoveries and narrow escapes, but any excess in the material is tempered by the calm restraint of Scott's language. Scott is both compassionate moralist and master storyteller in this outstanding debut.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Meet the Author

James Scott was born in Boston and grew up in upstate New York. He holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MFA from Emerson College. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and other publications. He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and dog. The Kept is his first novel.

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The Kept 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
sneps More than 1 year ago
Look at the book cover very closely. See the house burning, slowly?? Almost smoldering? With all that white snow around and barren trees? Well, there is a story inside with lots of secrets that won’t be revealed until you are ready to take steps toward that fire. This story is absolutely fantastic, brilliantly written, and is not meant for the faint at heart or the rushed reader. It’s a like a stew, the longer it simmers, the better it tastes. Only, this book doesn’t taste good…the secrets are quite shocking, revealing, and show why these characters worked so hard at hiding in their home, away from everyone. As you read this story, remind yourself: this is 1897. Long before the Women’s Suffrage Movement, long before the civil movement, and long before there were telephones, internet, and social media. So, it’s quite interesting to see how stories never die, scars never truly heal, and the lengths people will go to keep the harshest of secrets hidden. Elspeth is a mid-wife, a mother and wife, who often leaves her family for long bouts of time, before returning with money (hidden in the tips her feet). She comes home to find her family brutally murdered, and it is only when she slowly overcomes her shock, does she find herself staring at the end of a barrel. Her only remaining child lives, Caleb, who is quite innocent, ignorant, and is unprepared for the dangers outside their home. Told in alternating voices-Elspeth and Caleb, it is quite interesting to read as Elspeth reflects back on her life and the choices made. Elspeth and Caleb, mother and child, must try to build a relationship with one another and redeem their family by hunting for the family’s killers. Along the way, Caleb and Elspeth encounter new adventures, however James Scott never truly lets us (nor Elspeth) forget what led to that fateful day. This is not an easy book to digest. It won’t be read in a night or two, nor will it be something you will truly appreciate and understand, until you become as invested in Elspeth and Caleb, as they do in their own relationship. It’s a fantastic book, one that would bring vivid conversations in a book club or group setting, and will certainly have you looking at things differently, as you realize that nothing is ever as it seems.
EMMacCallum More than 1 year ago
Set in the late 1800′s it begins by introducing us to Elspeth, a self-proclaimed sinner. At first this seems like some ritualistic, Catholic self-hate, until the truth unfolds in a masterful way. “The Kept” is a dark journey between a mother and son who barely know each other, or themselves, following a tragedy. They’re perfectly flawed and despite some of the damning revelations, you can’t help but sympathize with them. James Scott’s first novel conveys every level of emotion when depicting his two main characters, who both react differently to the death of their family, and to their mutual feelings of revenge. The characters are unforgettable and the adventure rife with uncertainty. I loved this novel from beginning to end for the characters, the depth and lingering feelings it left me with long after I closed it. Historical Fiction lovers will love “The Kept”. It has adventure, every spectrum of character and a story of a unconventional and unforgettable family.
Twink More than 1 year ago
The Kept is James Scott's debut novel - and it has firmly established him as a author to watch. 1897. Upstate New York. Midwife Elspeth Howell trudges home to the isolated farmhouse that houses her husband and five children. But, as she draws closer everything is silent - no noise, no smoke, no light. They're all dead, save one - twelve year old Caleb. Caleb, who sleeps in the barn, who is not comfortable with the scriptures his father lives by.....and who saw the men who killed his family. "Caleb feared she saw his guilt, but hoped she saw how he'd changed. He would defend them, he would find those men and he would kill them for what they'd done to his family." Caleb was a brilliant character. It was him I became invested in. His forced entry into adulthood was hard to watch, yet impossible to turn away from. His thoughts, his unerring goal and his path there were heartbreaking. Elspeth is a complex character as well. The opening lines of the book are hers. "Elspeth Howell was a sinner. The thought passes over here like a shadow as she washed her face or caught her refection in a window or disembarked from a train after months away from home. Whenever she saw a church or her husband quoted verse or she touched the simple cross around her neck, while she fetched her bags, her transgressions lay in the hollow of her chest, hard and heavy as stone." I was intrigued by the isolated setting and the veiled references to the past. Elspeth's sins, and her past are slowly revealed as the book progresses - not in statements, but in a deliciously slow manner through memories and flashbacks. There are a number of secondary characters that are equally well drawn. And like Elspeth and Caleb, also searching. For a sense of belonging, for acceptance, for family, for wealth, for power, for revenge, for vengeance, for the will to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Scott is a brilliant wordsmith. He prose easily capture the starkness, grittiness, the violence and the hard life that Caleb leads. But the tendrils of hopes, dreams, desires and love are also captured. Scott's descriptions of time and place were just as evocative. I trudged through the cold with Elspeth and Caleb (actually quite easy to imagine as it's -25C. (-13F) outside right now) and saw 'civilization' for the first time through Caleb's eyes. I really enjoyed The Kept. I had no idea where Scott was going to take his story. I appreciate being unable to predict where a narrative will wend. I did read the ending more than once, just to make sure I understood what Scott was saying. And a few more times to see how I felt about it. It's fitting - even if it's not what I would have wanted to have happen. Hauntingly bleak and beautiful. And recommended. Those who enjoy Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis's True Grit would really enjoy The Kept.
marilynrhea1 More than 1 year ago
This novel was given to me to read and review. I quite liked the time setting of the novel. It is rather a dark and disturbing book that makes you think about choices and the morality of the choices you make. It kept me interested, and guessing, but I thought the middle of the book went a little slow. There are so many layers to the book, that it should really be read and thought about. Altogether, I would recommend this to any serious reader, that like to think about what they read.
JOMONV More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book. The writing is so vivid, the story very original. I was enthralled from the first chapter. Highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was ok, started out strong and kept my interest. It's a strange story and the characters actions make no sense. All this could have been forgiven if not for the ridiculous ending. Pretty disappointing and I wish I could recover the time and money I spent on it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Overly descriptive almost to the point I had to put the book down. I would say 40% of the book was descriptions of snow, ice, snow storms, ice storms and so on. Understood after Book I section that it was winter, I didn't need 30 pages on and off to describe same. Got the hint. Wanted to like the book more that I did but it rather bored me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So many elements that should have made the book gripping. Still, it managed to be dull. Poor character development, redundant symbolism and violence. Characters were odd and you never learned why.
GroveGirl More than 1 year ago
I was very excited to read this book.  The overview intrigued me, however at times I was lost!  The author left many critical pieces out of the story line,.  The details were confusing. Reading should be easy not difficult as this book was.  The ending was very very very disappointing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was just good enough that I kept reading, thinking it would get better, BUT it is a great book to put you to sleep
EffieRN More than 1 year ago
Did not like this book. Found it very confusing, characters' motivations were never clear. I kept reading until the end hoping for understanding. Sadly this hope was in vain. I do not recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
VERY GOOD BOOK. Well written. But where's the justice and wrongs to be righted ? I feel quite deprived. I feel like i've been down a long tunnel and hit the train I didn't see coming.j
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Kept is about a mother and son who journey together to seek revenge for the killing of their family. The road they travel will take them back to the small town in which young Caleb was born. Sins of the past will tear them apart and make both mother and son face the disconnect that has defined their relationship. I picked this book to read in my book club and EVERYONE of us loved it and found it difficult to put down!
TheLoon More than 1 year ago
For me this book was a real "tweener". The writing skill of the author is formidable and he has a strong story line. However, with about 30 pages left in the book I thought we had gotten somewhere with resolving the key issues of the book only to be seriously tripped up in the end. The end left me totally adrift. Are we captured by our fate so much?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A crazy story. Hard to read at times but well worth it.
schwind 11 days ago
Horrible. If I start a book, I feel guilty if I don't finish. It started out very good and compelling, then it went bad for me. Couldn't understand what was going on, who the father was to Caleb and why the whole family was killed. If someone could tell me I would appreciate it very much. Just the reason why this family was so horribly murder. Maybe I will try again, but I doubt it. Too many books, not enough time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting story, however I don't know why. I was drawn in at times, and at other times I felt like I was watching a tv show from across the room. I met the characters, but I don't feel like I knew them. I love historical fiction, but I didn't love this one. The ending made me think of the final shot from the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I did like the way the author cut back and forth in time, it was very well done and was most of the reason I continued to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was on my book club list. I found it interesting enough at first, but then became bored with all the descriptions. I forced myself to finish this book, and I was very disappointed with the ending.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating story line that was a bit gruesome at times. I liked the twists and deep emotional turmoils of the characters leading you through the book. I thought the end was ok and in line with the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
On page 31 and from the time the Mom finds her family murdered and youngest son shoots her by mistake the storey stalls. 11 year old moves the bodies of his older siblings and d
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