The Taking

Overview

J. D. LANDIS
Author of Longing

THE TAKING

In his critically acclaimed novel, Longing, J. D. Landis explored the volatile nature of passion as he brought to life the extraordinary marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann. It was a fervent love story that unfolded against the lavish backdrop of the Romantic Age. Now Landis tells a haunting ...
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Overview

J. D. LANDIS
Author of Longing

THE TAKING

In his critically acclaimed novel, Longing, J. D. Landis explored the volatile nature of passion as he brought to life the extraordinary marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann. It was a fervent love story that unfolded against the lavish backdrop of the Romantic Age. Now Landis tells a haunting story set amid a sylvan cluster of towns, villages, and graveyards in New England— nestled in a valley that would be purposely flooded in the late 1930s to create the Quabbin Reservoir. Communities would be destroyed, lives uprooted, connections to places of birth severed, and the dead would be exhumed and reburied.

The fate of Swift River Valley holds a strange fascination for seventeen-year-old Sarianna Renway, a wayward student obsessed with the life and work of poet Emily Dickinson. Sarianna finds herself drawn to this little world whose end is predetermined and whose time is drawing near. In the small hamlet of Greenwich Village—abandoned, beautiful, doomed—Sarianna takes a job tutoring a minister's son.


A man of deep faith, Jeremy Treat strives to instill hope into a town destined to be taken and lost forever. He vows to be the last one in the valley to ensure his remaining flock leaves safely. Eleven-year-old Jimmy, "the perfect representation of God on earth," is a curious and compassionate child prodigy. The matriarch of the household is twenty-six-year-old Una, a voluptuous eccentric who embraces scandal—and pines for the one true love who disappeared almost twelve years ago on the day she became Jeremy's wife. When the mysterious Ethan Vear resurfaces, none willemerge unchanged—especially Sarianna, who finds herself ensnared in a triangle of shifting identities and warring passions.

In lush, evocative prose, J. D. Landis takes these vivid characters—their secrets, their temptations, their desires—and creates a stunning New England gothic novel of sexual awakening, profound loss, and thwarted love.

J. D. Landis is the critically acclaimed author of Longing, a New York Times Notable Book, and Lying in Bed, winner of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New Hampshire.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The flooding of a New England town sets the stage for this endlessly inventive gothic novel, an overstuffed, antic and spooky effort by veteran editor and award-winning novelist Landis (Longing; Lying in Bed). In 1938, strong-minded Mount Holyoke student Sarianna Chase Renway answers an advertisement for a female tutor, which leads her to Greenwich, Mass. The town is nearly deserted, soon to be submerged beneath the waters of a reservoir. Sarianna, a devoted reader of Emily Dickinson, gets a poetic thrill from the impending destruction; the queer atmosphere is heightened by the eccentricities of her employers, the willful Rev. Jeremy Treat and his lovely, ethereal wife, Una (Sarianna's charge is 11-year-old Jimmy, a preternaturally gifted child). The Treats are at once archly playful and overpoweringly seductive, and Sarianna is soon drawn into a complex and increasingly surreal romantic drama. Una yearns for her first true love, Ethan Vear, who was perhaps her half-brother; he disappeared when Una, already pregnant with Jimmy, betrayed Ethan with Jeremy Treat. A new cycle of betrayal begins as Sarianna-her identity at times blurring with Una's-rouses the passion of Jeremy and falls in love with Ethan, whom she discovers living in the forest with his elderly father, Simeon. Life and death are fluid states in this clever, intricately plotted novel, and identity little more than a temporary marker. The droll, unexpected asides-Ethan, for example, teaches Sarianna the techniques of skinning game and preparing it for dinner-are alone worth the price of admission. By turns coy and florid but never dull, this is excellent literary entertainment. (Oct. 3) Forecast: Landis's fans will love this Jamesian fantasy; booksellers might recommend it to readers who enjoyed Sarah Waters's similarly clever Fingersmith. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The true account of a deliberate flooding of a Massachusetts hamlet is the backdrop for Landis's new novel (after Longing), a tale of sexual awakenings and preternatural occurrences. It is the late 1930s, and the government has confiscated several small New England towns in the name of eminent domain so that it can create the Quabbin Reservoir (a new water source for Boston 70 miles away). Meanwhile, Sarianna Chase Renway, a freshman at Mount Holyoke College and an Emily Dickinson devotee, answers an ad for a tutor in Greenwich Village, MA, soon to be submerged. She gets the job working for Rev. Jeremy Treat; his wife, Una; and their prodigal son, Jimmy. What unfolds is an eerie tale of family revenge, sexual longings, and murderous consequences. In unearthly prose, filled with elegant descriptions of the mysteries of empty churches and dark, ominous woods, Landis moves the plot along quickly to a chilling conclusion that will surprise most readers. Some may take offense at the stark depictions of sexuality and somewhat contrived dialog. Overall, this is recommended for larger public library systems with a strong emphasis on historical fiction containing adult themes.-Christopher Korenowsky, Columbus Metropolitan Lib. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Self-consciously melodramatic tale of a 17-year-old girl's fateful summer of 1938 in a doomed Greenwich, Massachusetts. Emily Dickinson is Sarianna Chase Renway's favorite author, and, to emulate and honor Dickinson, the serious-minded Sarianna quits Mount Holyoke (where Dickinson also studied) after one year to become tutor to a minister's son in the Swift River Valley. After one more year, the valley will be flooded by government decree to provide water for Boston, and the town of Greenwich will be gone. Hence, few residents are left to fill Reverend Treat's church and provide companionship to his lovely young wife Una and 11-year-old son. Using allusions to such New England literary forebears as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary Rowlandson, Landis (Longing, 2000, etc.), evidently steeped in the Puritan tradition, gradually introduces a bizarre, incestuous ménage involving the Treats and Una's childhood family, the Vears: Una grew up with handsome half-brother Ethan Vear and might have been pregnant with his child when her father/uncle Simeon sent her to live with the handsome God-wrestling Reverend Treat 11 years ago. Into this mystical muddle steps clear-eyed virgin Sarianna, who is charmed by Una's stories of Ethan-or his spirit-and resolves to find him even though he's reputed dead. In fact, when he does materialize, a kind of feral boy living in the woods with gruff elderly father Simeon, it's unclear whether he really exists or just functions as a metaphorical foil for the mad graveyard gleanings of the living. With its archaic syntax and stilted vocabulary ("within the chaste clasp of my childhood bedroom"), the story hinges on the "taking" of Sarianna's innocence: Will it be done bythe irresistible reverend, for whom Sarianna doubles for a younger Una? The ethereal Ethan? Even young Jimmy Treat, emerging into manhood? In any case, Sarianna isn't as interested in the act as in the act of reading: literary and biblical personages have a more solid presence here than Landis's own. A gothically tempestuous, not undelightful examination of the anxiety of influence.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345450067
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/30/2003
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.72 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

J. D. Landis is the critically acclaimed author of Longing, a New York Times Notable Book, and Lying in Bed, winner of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New Hampshire.
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First Chapter

BOOK ONE
THE REALM OF YOU

I came to the Swift River Valley as most everyone else was leaving. In this I was not at all like that favorite poet of mine, Emily Dickinson, who had written, "I do not cross my father's ground to any house or town." Indeed, though I was but seventeen years old in 1938, and liked nothing better than to be alone with a book of poems within the chaste clasp of my childhood bedroom, I had crossed my father's ground as often as necessary.

We lived on Dickinson Street in Springfield, Massachusetts. I discovered Emily while attending Forest Park Junior High School, where I was a most serious student and preferred to commune with the gifted dead than with my mundane and predictable contemporaries. I convinced myself, against such evidence as only mere truth could provide, that the street on which we lived had been named for Emily Dickinson. (And that I might gain entry to the house in downtown Springfield, on the corner of Water and Bliss, in which on two occasions she had as a young woman visited and slept—the present owners repeatedly closed the door against my entreaties.) This pretense alone made me happy to live on that wide, heavily trafficked, unattractive thoroughfare, pinioned mostly by two-family, double-decker homes, though ours was ours alone, detached and grimly middle-class and sniffish. I disregarded the fact that mine was a happiness obtained under the kind of self-delusion that all my life I have prided myself I have never practiced.

For example, I am willing to admit that I don't know whether I was attracted first to Emily's life or her poetry. I discovered some few but pertinent facts about the former fromthe essay Thomas Higginson had published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891, five years after her death.

She and Higginson had exchanged correspondence for eight years before they finally met, on August 16, 1870. She told him about her domination by her father. Higginson characterized Edward Dickinson as "a man of the old type, la vielle roche of Puritanism." He was in fact an orthodox Calvinist. So frightened was she of his judgment that she didn't learn to tell time until she was nearly as old as I when I went off to college. When she was little, he had tried to teach her to tell time. She couldn't comprehend his explanation. She was afraid to tell him so and afraid to tell anyone else in case word got back to him. So she lived without knowledge of time. Outside of time. Or so deeply within it that she was blind to it the way those in love cannot see how love, like time, may waste us.

In my freshman literature class at Mount Holyoke, in which I was the youngest student, I offered up the preposterous theory that Emily's inability to tell time was a source of the fractured rhythms of her verse. That I was taken seriously was only one of the reasons I left college to live in the doomed Swift River Valley.

My father was also named Edward. He too read "lonely and rigorous books" and he too was a lawyer. He traced his ancestry back nearly three hundred years to a Chase who had landed a Pilgrim upon a shifting, granulated Massachusetts dune. That was on his father's side. Somewhere down that pedigreed line a Chase woman allowed herself to be not only ravished by but married to a French Canadian, who sought the greater heat of both a southern clime and a Protestant woman's blond and milky loin. Thus was my father born Renouer. Alas, he listened to the names people called him as well as to pronunciation of his actual name and had it legally changed to Renway. Thus did he name me Sarianna Chase Renway. But like Emily Dickinson, who sometimes spelled herself Emilie, as in "your bad, sad Emilie," I sometimes grasped the dying breath of h and called myself Sariannah.

(My mother was a Darling. In name only. So dominated was she by my father that I have almost no memory of her. Like many people lost to time, she loved antiques—I do remember that. She collected things wholly out of keeping with a newish house on Dickinson Street: bung starters and Silenius jugs supported by lascivious little cambered figures and salamander irons she would keep in the kitchen for decoration but never use to stimulate the browning of her pallid meats or her runny pies.)

My father was a man who imposed upon those around him both his pleasures and his disinclinations. You must love what he loved and hate what he hated. When I was six, he allowed me my first taste of soda pop to celebrate the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and later that year added a splash of rye whiskey to my pop on the night Ruth Snyder was electrocuted for the murder of her husband. When I was eleven, and unknown to my parents had begun to bleed, he attempted one last time to take his belt to my bottom (through my clothing—he had never shown interest in my nakedness) in the impotence of his rage over the discovery of the body of little Charles Lindbergh Jr.

That was the first time I crossed my father's ground. I lit out into the night and walked down Sumner Avenue to where it met Long Hill Street, at that very spot where local legend placed the village of the Agawam Indians, who attacked Springfield during King Philip's War 250 years earlier and over by Pecousic Brook in Forest Park killed their children hostages, a sacrifice to desperation and revenge our teachers loved to taunt us with but which thrilled us instead. I snuck behind the mansions there upon the palisades and slid on my backside to the bank of the Connecticut River. I found the usual hoboes curled up there under their Hoover blankets and on that chilly May night folded my arms over my girlish bosom and warmed myself at their fire until I realized that my bosom was of subordinate appeal and warmed myself even more by running back up the hill.

When I was fourteen, and was singing the words to "Blue Moon" while washing the dishes, my father walked over to the sink and lifted the drying tray above his head and released it to the mercy of the floor.

Having been forced by my father to skip a grade, either because he enjoyed the thought I was intelligent beyond my years or because he wanted me out of his life that much sooner, I started at Classical High School that same year. It was then I discovered another "sweet invisible," Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as the power I had over boys that grew, I discovered, in direct proportion to my denying them what they wanted. It didn't matter what I wanted, which was never one of them. So long as I withheld myself—smile, flattery, touch, or even hope of same—I was coveted. Like my father, I imposed myself upon the world to keep it from doing so to me.

As for desire, I felt none bodily. I felt none for anything but words and what I hadn't learned yet to call prosody and for flowers. Without an object, desire is not only aimless but incongruous. I felt myself privileged to have been freed of it before I was even lashed by it.

I went to Mount Holyoke College and not any of the other schools that solicited my attendance because Emily Dickinson had gone there. It had then, in 1847, been named Mount Holyoke Female Seminary but called simply South Hadley, after the small town in which it resided.

I lasted two semesters. So had Emily ninety years before me.

"I am not happy," she wrote from college.

I was perfectly happy there, which was a better reason to leave than its opposite. Contentment is inappropriate for a seventeen-year-old woman.

Emily left not because she was unhappy studying Silliman's Chemistry and Cutler's Physiology, Smellie's Natural History and Mrs. Phelps's Botany. Poetry is grounded in the pith of things, hers especially. ("Bring me the sunset in a cup.") She left because it was the time of the Second Great Awakening. The girls were rounded up into conversion assemblies, where those who were "destitute of the Christian hope" were expected to declare for Christ.

So far as Emily was concerned, such a declaration could land her only in the "ark of safety." She preferred to "buffet the sea," as she put it. And added in that letter to the kind of friend I never had until I found her in the same condemned and fugitive valley where I also found my Ethan: "I love the danger."

In that we were alike, as I was to discover.

I did not go home to Springfield my entire freshman year. On holidays and some weekends, I hitchhiked out of South Hadley and took a room in a hotel or boardinghouse in close-by Amherst. It was more than Emily might have done—in her day the students were kept prisoner on weekends so they might, without distraction of family or friends or freedom, make Christ their portion. So I went to Amherst as her proxy and her student. There I traced her routes not so much upon the roads she'd rarely graced but in the woods that she was much in as a little girl and where she'd been told a snake would bite her and on the cemetery paths she walked and in the air both outside and inside the Homestead right on Main Street where she'd lived in her corner bedroom and thought and wrote and locked herself away with an imaginary key, saying to her niece, Martha, "Mattie, here's freedom," as I pretended I might do within the safe room of my own mind.

My parents had deposited me and my one book and few articles of girlish clothing on my first day at Mount Holyoke. After that, they never even threatened to visit. When my father wrote to ask if they should pick me up for the summer, I wrote back to say they should not. I didn't want to spend the summer in Springfield, I said. I planned to look, elsewhere, for work.

One midday I saw a typed solicitation tacked onto the bulletin board outside the dining hall:

female tutor sought for minister's son in greenwich village room and board provided

I tore the sheet from the board so no one else might see it. I thought at first it was the Greenwich Village in New York City and imagined myself running there as Edna St. Vincent Millay had from Camden, Maine. But then I noticed the post-office address and learned soon enough that Greenwich Village was smack in the middle of the Swift River Valley, which itself was smack in the middle of Massachusetts. As such it was scheduled within a year or two to be underwater. There were occasional articles in the Springfield Union about the impending death of the valley. But I'd paid little attention until now. It was even better than New York City, which, one could imagine, would be there forever. This Greenwich Village was doomed.
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