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A story of three American eras . . .
A teenage boy and his grandfather travel across America to attend that last great reunion of Civil War veterans at Gettysburg in 1938, where secrets and lies are revealed about the old man’s past. Perhaps he was not the hero his grandson thought, but he still has a valuable treasure to reveal, which will shed intriguing light on the war ...
A story of three American eras . . .
A teenage boy and his grandfather travel across America to attend that last great reunion of Civil War veterans at Gettysburg in 1938, where secrets and lies are revealed about the old man’s past. Perhaps he was not the hero his grandson thought, but he still has a valuable treasure to reveal, which will shed intriguing light on the war and his part in it.
This debut novel by an award-winning British journalist takes the reader into three different key periods in US history: the 1860s, the 1930s, and the present day. It raises great questions about journalism, photography, war, and young love in a compelling story that mixes past and present.
As soon as they saw the old house on the hill they knew that they must have it, despite the discouragement of the realtor. "No one's lived there for years," he'd said. "I'm not sure it's worth saving. It would take a heck of a lot to make anyone want to live here. It's been on our books for months. There might be a price to knock it down and start again with a nice new house, I suppose. If you want my opinion that's what should be done with it."
He was right. The old house on the rise running out of town was boarded up and high among the eaves they could see the shingles had slipped in places, leaving holes scattered across the roof. There were gaps in the floor of the porch running along the north side of the building. A rag of curtain blew through the remains of an upper window.
But there was something about it, Eugene and Isabelle Hofsettler agreed, that would suit them for their grand project. Maybe it was because they saw it on a crystal-clear Fall day, against a blue sky, with the nearby maples turning scarlet. Or maybe it was just that it was so quiet. There was a new estate of executive homes just on sale down the hill – the realtor had asked them if they'd really not rather look at one of those instead – all trimmed lawns and driveways sweeping up to triple garages, house fronts with fake pillars and porticoes as if they'd been there since before the Civil War. But that wasn't what they wanted at all.
Ever since they had known that they had to get out of New York following 9/11, they had been looking for somewhere of character and taste, genuinely old, not just pretending to be: a place which they – or their builders – could do up, which would anchor their lives at last. Maybe they could make it a chintzy, gingham-laden bed and breakfast home, with Victorian antiques, stripped floorboards and patchwork quilts. Or maybe it would just be their home, where Gene could have a study looking out towards the Berkshire hills and write the Great American Novel. Perhaps they could do both.
9/11 had just come too close to them. Isabelle had watched the first plane turn past Greenwich Village and hit the south tower from their apartment as she brewed herself a morning coffee. She'd left the building a short while later – so hurriedly that the television news was still playing in a weird simulation of the sight playing out through the apartment's picture window behind it. She had joined the grey, dust-covered office workers making their way up Seventh Avenue in the foggy half-light, the paper shards of office life drifting around them. Returning to the apartment later had been almost too much: the skyline view that she had so loved about the living room when they bought the apartment three years earlier had irrevocably changed, an everlasting reminder of what had been lost, a gap filled by sky where the towers had been. Even though the windows had been firmly closed too, a miasma seemed to hang about the rooms and grey dust covered the furniture. She could not bear the thought of the violation of their space. What the dust might contain was unthinkable. It had taken her days to wash the dust and smell off her body, out of her hair. The water had run grey down the plughole of the shower. It seemed to be everywhere, hanging like a pall over their lives, in their clothes and in their minds. They had been invaded and needed to get away.
On that terrible morning, Gene's was an even narrower escape. He'd had to catch an early flight from Newark to San Fransisco for a business trip. It had been a chapter of accidents all day: they'd overslept because the alarm clock was running slow and the cab was late to pick him up and he'd had to race down the New Jersey pike to get to the airport. In the distance, he'd looked across and seen the towers gleaming in the early morning sun and thought how beautiful they appeared. Then he'd looked at his watch again and urged the driver on. The man's good luck charms, hanging from the rear-view mirror, had jangled as they weaved through the traffic, the silver surfaces with their Arabic inscriptions catching the sunlight.
Little things like that stuck in the mind, like how when he finally got out at the drop-off zone, the African cab driver had grinned winningly and said: "Inshallah! Have a nice day." It was only later that he wondered what that had really meant.
He'd raced through the terminal to the gate. Luckily, he had made the flight often enough to know which it would be and they were just closing as he made it to the desk. "I am sorry, sir, we're just going," the attendant had said. "The next flight's leaving in a few minutes. You'll be good for that. Let's see ... Gate A-17, United 93. It's pretty empty. We'll get you on that OK, it's boarding at eight." She'd started typing on her terminal.
What had made him insist, except for impatience and a loathing of waiting for anything, he never knew, but Gene had said no, he was here now, they hadn't shut the doors yet and he only had hand luggage. He could just sneak on. It would be OK. And, thank God, she'd said yes.
Later, when their flight had made an emergency landing in Nebraska as the skies across America closed down after the hijackings, they had been stunned to see what was happening on the airport television screens. And later still, as he and a few other passengers had pooled together to hire a car and drive all the way back to New York, radio going the whole time, all through the three days it took to drive home, he found out what had happened to United 93: lost with all lives in a field in Pennsylvania.
There had been a long time to think on the journey home. It made the goose-bumps stand up: two minutes later and he'd have been on that flight, one more hold-up on the pike, one more set of traffic lights on red, one car blocking a turning, another lorry unloading in the Village and he'd have been gone. Or, if he had been less insistent on getting on the earlier flight, run less fast through the terminal, or if the attendant had been more bloody-minded and made him wait. Or, indeed, he later felt, if he'd had to go through all the security checks they brought in later, he'd never have made it. Looking back, Inshallah indeed.
But it was too close for comfort. It seemed like a narrow escape. And it made them reassess their lives. Maybe it even saved their marriage: they'd been getting so fractious with each other with the stress of living in Manhattan, catching cabs, running for planes, making meetings. 9/11 was a break in their lives too.
So, here they were, in western Massachusetts, looking at old houses where they could work from home, maybe raise chickens and children, write books, run a B&B if that failed, and step aside from the rush of city life too. And now, in front of them, lay the perfect house. Built around 1880, the particulars said, a former family home in need of complete renovation and TLC. Weather-boarded, built in the Victorian gothic style, three storeys, with high gables and, so far as they could see because of the boards covering them, large windows. There was even a porch running round the north side on which to sit in the evenings in their rocking chairs admiring the view. Out back there was a yard and a few overgrown shacks, patched with corrugated iron and old tin advertisements.
"It's like something out of Norman Rockwell," Anne had said. "Or Psycho" he'd retorted.
The realtor had unlocked the padlock and chain securing the front door, shoved his shoulder against it to force it open and with a grunt of disdain walked them out of the light and into the dark hallway. As he shone his torch around, they could see it was like walking back 100 years, as if it had never been touched. The curving wooden bannister of the staircase was intact and the patterned tiles on the floor were cracked but in place. Some of the plaster had fallen from the ceiling, but enough was still there to show the scrolls and and acanthus leaves that had decorated it.
They didn't need to go any further. "We'll take it," they had said.
Through the winter and the following Spring, the builders had made the place habitable, but there was still work to be done on March 1st 2002, which they'd determined was the day they would move in. The house was water-tight but some of the upper-storey rooms were still bare and musty. In one they had even found an ancient iron bedstead and a Victorian wardrobe, the glass mirror in its door cracked clean across. This could be a project for later: even all the stuff from their large apartment in the Village wasn't enough to fill a house this big.
They had their good days and their bad days, of course. Neither Gene nor Izzie had ever lived in the country and it was infuriating that things couldn't be done as fast as in town, and no Starbucks to hand when you just needed one. They missed their colleagues back in the office – emails weren't the same – and the buzz of chance meetings and after work drinks in a local bar.
New England folks were reserved too. When the newcomers told them they had bought the old house, locals just said drily that they had heard that already, or that they had known the place years ago when a family was living there. Gene and Izzie were not great church-goers, except at Christmas and anyway, which church to go to? The Episcopalians – God's frozen people in the old white church under the steeple on main street – or the Baptists with their hellfire sermons and their waving and clapping in the brick barn by the shopping mall? None really appealed. Izzie wasn't into baking, or quilt making and they did not play bridge. The Republicans had the golf club, Democrats owned the squash courts, and really Gene and Izzie's tennis was not good enough to display in front of people they didn't know. There was no one to invite round to a meal: what would they talk about after the introductions?
There was a Walmart, of course, even a deli of sorts. But go in and try asking for gigli or orechiette as Izzie did just once – "You know, like pasta ..." – and the assistants would look at you as if you had stepped off a plane from Mars. Frankly, if you had to wait and order new books and CDs from the store, which could take days to arrive, or if the movie you wanted to see was just not coming to the multiplex, well, you might as well be living in the Victorian era, as well as a Victorian house. Izzie felt at a loose end, cut off, underwhelmed and isolated, especially when Gene was away on assignment for his magazine. There were whole days when she didn't speak to a soul.
But there was always the B&B idea. Gene tried to sell it to her as a cure for her blues. Once they had got the bedrooms sorted out and the antique shops raided for miles around for the essential trivia of lives gone-by: wash stands and jugs painted with flowers, mirrors and chests of drawers, embroidered cushions and pot-pourri bowls, he was sure she'd feel better.
And maybe that would be an escape from loneliness. Izzie had worked in public relations, admittedly for a film company, but would hospitality be that different? It would be like dressing a period film set, wouldn't it? She'd always liked baking muffins, hadn't she? Coffee, clean sheets, bowls of fruit – what was so hard about that, she reasoned to herself even as her heart sank.
As Spring drew on, there was a succession of removals men traipsing through with renovated bedsteads, new mattresses and chaise-longues, escritoires and rag mats to set off the polished floors; bathroom fitters installing replica baths with clawed feet and washbasins on fluted pedestals. They were running through their savings quicker than they'd intended, so the first guests couldn't be too far away. They'd better come soon, and in droves.
What to put on the newly-wallpapered walls? There were reproductions of 19th Century Currier & Ives prints of stagecoaches stuck in snow and railroad trains crossing the Prairies to set off the tasteful patterns of pink roses climbing up trellises, and there were Audubon bird prints and Rockwell posters for the more modern rooms and hallways: Shuffleton's Barber's Shop and Freedom from Want created just the right atmosphere for a New England home. All they needed to be now was New Englanders.
The corrugated iron shacks in the yard had to go. But they were full of junk: rusting tools, parts for ancient, long defunct bicycles – there was even a wheel that had been twisted double as if it had been run over – garden implements, paint tins and cans containing liquids of uncertain provenance.
Gene did not know where to start when he pushed his way through the door one Saturday morning in an attempt to establish what was salvageable, what might be sold and what was be trash. No one could have been in there for years, he was beginning to think that they might just as well pay someone to come and raze the whole lot to the ground when he kicked his shin against an old, black trunk poking out from under some logs. He was about to kick it again in retribution when something made him stop, bend down and pull at the rope handle at one end of the trunk. Amazingly it held as he tugged. Damnation! It was heavy and he might have abandoned it for ever if a tea chest of old crockery hadn't slipped allowing the trunk to come free. As he straightened up, Gene realised the sweat was running in grimy rivulets down his face.
The trunk was clear now, a big rectangular tin box. Wiping the dust from the top, he could see the initials AB roughly painted long ago in white across the lid. It was locked, but having got this far Gene decided he must open it. It was heavy enough to have a body inside, he thought to himself and that triggered the fantasy in his mind of the Old Haunted House.
Prising open the lock was not hard with a crowbar and as the catch snapped there was the sound of glass breaking inside. Gene flung back the lid and saw that the trunk was full of large rectangular glass plates, some of them cracked right across.
He lifted one out and took it outside. As he swivelled it to catch the light he let out a gasp. Looming out of the shadows on the glass a man in uniform was staring back at him. It was a negative image and, by the look of it, of a soldier. Not a modern one though, a soldier from the 19th century. He knew enough history to think immediately of the Civil War.
Gene ran back inside to the box and pulled up another plate and another until he had half a dozen to carry outside. Sure enough, on the first, he could make out a line of troops on parade; on the next a group of soldiers and the one after that men standing around a cannon. The images were all shadowy and faded, black where white should have been and white where black: it was a considerable archive. There must be thirty plates in the box. They could not have been seen in decades, maybe not for a hundred years or more – maybe never since they were taken.
One other thing Gene knew: they must be valuable. People would want them and they would fetch a considerable sum. Enough to help finish the house, maybe. And to think he'd been wondering ten minutes earlier about bulldozing the lot.
As he ran to tell Izzie, Gene started laughing. "Come and look at what I've found," he was shouting. He'd discovered a treasure-trove. Inshallah! It was another of those 9/11 moments.... but this time only in a good way.CHAPTER 2
It was the late afternoon sun, pouring through the blinds of the bedroom window, sending a rectangle of light across the floor and into his eyes, that woke the old man.
He ached all over, but that was just age. When a man's so old most things, except one, get stiff, he thought. He did not want to get up yet, but knew his afternoon siesta was definitively over: he would not get back to sleep again.
The light tickled his eyes and, when he opened them, he could see a spiral of dust rising through the light in the still air of the bedroom. On the mantlepiece, the old heavy-cased clock, that he had had for 40 years, ticked on loudly. It never missed a beat, unlike him these days.
Excerpted from The Photographer's Boy by Stephen Bates. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Bates. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted June 27, 2014
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Posted September 4, 2014
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