A haunting novel from the author of The Weight of Blood about a young woman’s return to her childhood home—and her encounter with the memories and family secrets it holds
ITW THRILLER AWARD FINALIST
Arrowood is the most ornate and grand of the historical houses that line the Mississippi River in southern Iowa. But the house has a mystery it has never revealed: It’s where Arden Arrowood’s younger twin sisters vanished on her watch twenty years ago—never to be seen again. After the twins’ disappearance, Arden’s parents divorced and the Arrowoods left the big house that had been in their family for generations. And Arden’s own life has fallen apart: She can’t finish her master’s thesis, and a misguided love affair has ended badly. She has held on to the hope that her sisters are still alive, and it seems she can’t move forward until she finds them. When her father dies and she inherits Arrowood, Arden returns to her childhood home determined to discover what really happened to her sisters that traumatic summer.
Arden’s return to the town of Keokuk—and the now infamous house that bears her name—is greeted with curiosity. But she is welcomed back by her old neighbor and first love, Ben Ferris, whose family, she slowly learns, knows more about the Arrowoods’ secrets and their small, closed community than she ever realized. With the help of a young amateur investigator, Arden tracks down the man who was the prime suspect in the kidnapping. But the house and the surrounding town hold their secrets close—and the truth, when Arden finds it, is more devastating than she ever could have imagined.
Arrowood is a powerful and resonant novel that examines the ways in which our lives are shaped by memory. As with her award-winning debut novel, The Weight of Blood, Laura McHugh has written a thrilling novel in which nothing is as it seems, and in which our longing for the past can take hold of the present in insidious and haunting ways.
Praise for Arrowood
“This robust, old-fashioned gothic mystery has everything you’re looking for: a creepy old house, a tenant with a secret history, and even a few ghosts. Laura McHugh’s novel sits at the intersection of memory and history, astutely asking whether we carry the past or it carries us.”—Jodi Picoult
“An eloquently eerie tale.”—Booklist
“Poignant . . . lyrical.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A chilling, twisting tale of family, memory, and home . . . This engaging and thrilling tale about a young woman’s homecoming, the vagaries of memory, and the impact of tragedy on both a town and a family is a terrific choice for Laura Lippman and Sue Grafton readers.”—Library Journal (starred review)
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I used to play a game where I imagined that someone had abandoned me in a strange, unknown place and I had to find my way back home. There were various scenarios, but I was always incapacitated in some way—tied up, mute, missing a limb. I thought that I could do it blind, the same way a lost dog might trek a thousand miles to return to its owner, relying on some mysterious instinct that drew the heart back to where it belonged. Sometimes, in the towns where I’d lived after Keokuk, in a bedroom or classroom or while walking alone down a gravel road, I’d pause and orient myself to Arrowood, the Mississippi River, home. It’s there, I’d think, knowing, turning toward it like a needle on a compass.
Now, as I crossed the flat farmland of Kansas and northern Missouri, endless acres of wheat and corn blurring in the dense heat, I felt the road pulling me toward Iowa, as though I would end up there no matter which way I turned the wheel. I squinted into the bright afternoon sky, my sunglasses lost somewhere among the hastily packed bags and boxes I’d crammed into the back of my elderly Nissan. It was late September, the Midwestern air still stifling, unlike the cool sunshine I’d left behind in Colorado, where the aspens had just begun to turn.
Back in February, when I was still on track to finish my master’s degree, my recently remarried mother had called to let me know that my dad, Eddie, had keeled over dead on a blackjack table at the Mark Twain Casino in LaGrange. I hadn’t heard from my dad in the months leading up to his death, and hadn’t seen him in more than a year, so I had a hard time placing my feelings when I learned that he was gone. I had already lost him, in a way, long ago, in the wake of my sisters’ disappearance, and while I’d spent years mourning that first loss of him, the second loss left me oddly numb.
Still, I’d wept like a paid mourner at his funeral. The service was held in Illinois, where he’d been living, and most of the people in attendance, members of the Catholic parish he’d recently joined, barely knew him. I hated how funerals dredged up every shred of grief I’d ever felt, for the deceased or otherwise, each verse of “Amazing Grace” cutting into me and tearing out tiny bits of my insides. The priest wore a black cape over his cassock, and when he raised his arms to pray, it spread out dramatically, revealing a blood-red lining. He droned on at length, reminding us how much we had in common with the dead: We all had dreams, regrets, accomplishments, people we’d loved and disappointed, and at some point, for each of us, those earthly concerns would fall away, our lives replaced in an instant by darkness or—if you believed—light. Sometimes death came too soon, sometimes not soon enough, and only for certain sinners did it come at a time of one’s choosing.
When he spoke of those who had preceded my father in death, he didn’t mention Violet and Tabitha. Nor did he name them as survivors. My little sisters were neither alive nor dead, hovering somewhere in between, in the hazy purgatory of the missing. I had been the sole witness to their kidnapping when I was eight years old, and I had spent my childhood wondering if the man who took them might come back for me. He was never arrested, and no bodies were ever found.
Dad was buried in Keokuk, at the Catholic cemetery—despite the rift between them, Granddad hadn’t gone so far as to kick him out of the Arrowood family plot—but I didn’t attend the interment. No graveside service had been included in his prepaid burial plan, and my father was lowered into the earth without any last words.
Months later, a lawyer for the family trust called to inform me that Arrowood, the namesake house my great-great-grandfather had built on the Mississippi River bluff, the house we had left not long after my sisters’ abduction, was mine. It had sat empty for seventeen years, maintained by the trust, purposely kept out of my father’s reach to prevent him from selling it. Now I was finally going home.
It hadn’t been a difficult choice to make. Even before I had given up on what was supposed to be my last semester of school, there hadn’t been much tying me to Colorado. I was twenty-five years old, working as a graduate assistant in the history department, and renting an illegal basement apartment, the kind with tiny windows near the ceiling that would be difficult to escape from in a fire. The college fund Nana and Granddad had left for me was close to running out. I sat alone in my room at night staring at blank pages on my laptop, my fingers motionless on the keys, waiting for words that wouldn’t come, the title of my unfinished thesis stark on the glowing screen: “The Effects of Nostalgia on Historical Narratives.” Colorado had never felt like home. I had thought at first that the mountains could be a substitute for the river, something to anchor me, but I was wrong.
With the loss of my dad, the number of people in the world who knew both parts of me—the one that existed before my sisters were taken, and the one that remained after—had dwindled to a terrifying low. I worried that the old me would vanish if there was no one left to confirm her existence. When the lawyer said that Arrowood was mine, my first thoughts had nothing to do with the logistics or implications of moving back to Keokuk and living in the old house alone. I didn’t wonder if the man who had haunted my dreams was still there. I thought of my sisters playing in the shade of the mimosa tree in the front yard, of my childhood bedroom with the rose-colored wallpaper and ruffled curtains. And I thought of Ben, who knew the old me best of all. A sense of urgency flared inside me, electricity tingling through my limbs, and I was dumping dresser drawers onto the bed, pulling everything out of the closet before I had even hung up the phone.
the people of iowa welcome you: fields of opportunities. As I passed over the Des Moines River and saw that sign, my breath came easier, like I’d removed an invisible corset. I had been born at the confluence of two rivers, the Des Moines and the Mississippi, and an astrologer once explained that because I was a Pisces, my life was defined by water. I was slippery, mutable, elusive; like a river, I was always moving and never getting anywhere.
It was strange, crossing into Iowa, that I could feel different on one side of the bridge than the other, yet it was true. Each familiar sight helped ease a bone-deep longing: the railroad trestle, the cottonwoods crowding the riverbank, the irrigation rigs stretching across the fields like metal spines, the little rock shop with freshly cracked geodes glinting on the windowsills. I rolled down the window and breathed the Keokuk air, a distinct mix of earthy floodplain and factory exhaust. The Mississippi lay to my right, and even though I couldn’t yet see it beyond the fields, I could sense it there, deep and constant.
I followed the highway into town, which, according to the welcome sign, had shrunk by a third, to ten thousand people, since I’d moved away. A hundred years before, when riverboat trade thrived on the Mississippi, Keokuk had been hailed as the next Chicago, at one point boasting an opera house, a medical college, and a major league baseball team. A dam and hydroelectric plant were constructed to harness the river, and at the time of their completion in 1913, they were the largest in the world. Later, factories cropped up along the highway, but many had since shuttered their doors, the jobs disappearing with them. What remained as Keokuk faded was a mix of grandeur and decay: crumbling turn-of-the-century architecture, a sprawling canopy of old trees that had begun to lose their limbs, broad streets and walkways that had fallen into disrepair.
The houses grew older and larger and more elaborate as I passed through the modest outskirts and into the heart of town. Block after block of beautiful hundred-year-old homes, no two alike, some well preserved, some badly neglected, others abandoned and rotting into the ground, traces of their former elegance still evident in the ruins.
I crossed over Main Street to the east side, where the road turned to brick and rattled the loose change in my cup holder, reading the familiar street signs aloud as I passed them. Though I’d never driven here on my own, I didn’t need signs to find my way. I turned left onto Grand Avenue, the last street before the river. It had always been the most coveted address in town, and the fine homes were owned by people who could afford their upkeep: doctors like my late granddad, bank presidents, plant managers who had never worked a day on the line.
There were Romanesque Victorians, Queen Annes, Gothic Revivals, Jacobethans, Neoclassicals, Italianates, each house two stories or three, with towers and cupolas and columns. They sat on deep, tree-lined lots, the ones on the east side backing to a bluff two hundred feet above the Mississippi. Illinois forests and farmland stretched into the distance across the river, the occasional church steeple or water tower punctuating an expanse of green.
Two blocks down, I pulled into the driveway at Arrowood and stopped the car, taking in my first view of the house in nearly a decade. I had expected it to seem smaller now that I was grown, the way most things from childhood shrink over time. But Arrowood, built in the heavily ornamented Second Empire style, was as imposing as ever, three stories plus a central tower rising up between two ancient oak trees. Scrolled iron cresting topped the distinctive mansard roof, the tower hiding the widow’s walk at the back of the house where my ancestors had once watched for barges coming down the river. Embedded in the corner of the lawn was a small plaque acknowledging the house as a national historic property and a stop on the Underground Railroad. I pulled forward to park in the porte cochere and got out to wait for the caretaker, who would be showing up to give me the keys.
A bank of dusky clouds had pushed in from the north, the soupy air making me feel as though I had gotten dressed straight out of the bath, my tank top and shorts sticking uncomfortably to my skin. I followed the mossy brick path alongside the house, marveling at the fact that Arrowood appeared not to have aged in my absence; while the flower beds at the side of the house were now empty, and the hydrangeas that once bordered the front porch were gone, I couldn’t tell by looking at the house itself that any time had passed. The wraparound porch was freshly painted, the white spindles and fretwork bright against the dark gray clapboard. The mimosa tree still stretched its impossibly long limbs across the front yard, and I could picture the twins running through the grass, the gold car speeding away. I took a breath, and it was there: the lingering pain of a phantom wound inflicted long ago.
My mother had warned me that it was a mistake to come back, that Arrowood was best left in the past, and if I was smart I’d pray for an electrical fire and a swift insurance payout. I had set foot inside the house only once since we left, and for all the years I’d been away, I’d felt a nagging sense of dislocation. Nostalgia had always fascinated me, the bittersweet longing for a time and place left behind. I’d studied the phenomenon extensively for my thesis, not surprised to learn that nostalgia was once thought to be a mental illness or a physical affliction; to me, it was both. I had loved this house beyond reason, had felt its absence like the ache of a poorly set bone.
From the time we moved away up until I was fifteen years old, I had returned to Keokuk every summer to visit Grammy (my mother’s mother) and my great-aunt Alice at the Sister House a few blocks to the south. I would haunt the sidewalk outside of Arrowood, peeking into the dark windows with my friend Ben Ferris whenever we thought no one would catch us, wishing that I could go inside. Nana gave me a copy of Legendary Keokuk Homes, published by the Lee County historical society, and I had immersed myself in the histories of all the old houses, especially Arrowood. I wasn’t sure anymore how much of what I remembered about the house was actual memory and how much had leached into me from the book and Nana’s stories. Now that I was allowed back in, I was afraid it wouldn’t match the vision in my head, that it would all look wrong. The one time Ben and I had managed to sneak inside—the summer we were fifteen—it had been too dark and we were distracted by more pressing things.
I glanced over at the Ferris house next door, a cream-colored Gothic Revival with steep gables and narrow lancet windows and a handsome brick carriage house beside the drive. Maybe Ben was over there now, close enough to hear me if I called his name. I didn’t know what I would say if I saw him, how I would explain the years of silence.
The breeze picked up, fluttering the delicate fernlike leaves of the mimosa, and a few raindrops specked the front walk as a four-door Dodge truck lumbered into the drive and parked behind my car. The caretaker climbed out, a man about my dad’s age whose copper-colored hair had retreated halfway up his skull, revealing a broad, shiny forehead. His features crowded together at the center of his face, a bit too close to each other, as though they didn’t realize they had room to spread out. He wore tan Carhartt pants and work boots and a navy-blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up to accommodate his thick forearms.
“Miss Arrowood?” He had a raspy voice and a cordial smile. “I’m Dick Heaney. Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“You didn’t, really,” I said. “I just got here.”
“It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said. “I don’t know if your mother ever told you, but we were good friends back in the day. I knew your dad, too. He was a few years above me in school.”
Reading Group Guide
1. How has Arden’s past shaped her into the person she is at the beginning of the novel?
2. The novel is set in Keokuk, Iowa, a town on the Mississippi River. At one time it was a prosperous town, but now many of its beautiful homes are neglected and deteriorating. How does the setting contribute to the overall story?
3. Arden’s mother warned her that it was a mistake to go back to Arrowood, saying it was best left in the past, and that if Arden was smart she’d “pray for an electrical fire and a swift insurance payout.” But Arden insists that she “had loved this house beyond reason, had felt its absence like the ache of a poorly set bone.” Discuss the role that the house plays in the novel.
4. To cope with the tragedy of the past, Arden’s mother rewrites history, pushing down her emotional pain and refusing to acknowledge the family’s loss. Toward the end of the novel, Arden says, “I couldn’t cauterize my wounds as my mother had done.” Can you relate to this coping mechanism? Compare and contrast Arden’s way of dealing with painful memories to her mother’s.
5. There’s a saying that you can’t go home again. What do you think it means? How does it apply to Arden’s situation? What do you think of her decision to stay in Keokuk and let go of Arrowood?
6. When asked why solving the mystery of the twins’ death was important to him, Josh says, “It’s like a riddle. . . . I hate not knowing the answer.” In what ways has Josh’s past shaped who he is as an adult? Do you think Josh’s and Arden’s analagous childhood experiences affected them in similar or different ways? How does Josh’s work with his website, Midwest Mysteries, compare to Arden’s thesis project?
7. In your opinion, who was responsible for the death of the twins?
8. Describe the relationship between Arden and Ben. Did the way it evolves in the novel surprise you? What did you expect to happen between them? Did your feelings about Ben’s mother, Mrs. Ferris, change over the course of the novel?
9. In what fundamental ways has Arden changed by the end of the novel? Do you think she will finally be able to move forward?
10. What did you think of the book’s surprise ending—-or was it a surprise? Discuss the role of memory in the novel. How are memory, truth, and nostalgia (“the bittersweet longing for a time and place left behind”) intertwined, and what impact do they have on the presentday lives of the characters? If Arden were to rework her thesis for graduate school, what would she write?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a great read. Kept my attention all the way through. Great plot and twists. Very believable characters and setting. I only wish there was a little more paranormal activity involving her sisters. But I'm a fan of ghost stories.
An Excellent Read!!!! Like another reviewer, did not figure it out (sort of) until right at the end. Very, Very Good!! Thank you.
3.5 stars They vanished when Arden was 8. They were playing outside, when she quickly went around the corner of the house to retrieve something and when she came back, her twin 21-month old sisters were gone. She remembers seeing a gold car, it was moving down the street with her sisters inside, that was the last memory she had of her sisters. The police investigated the man who owned that gold car but he was clean. His name was Singer and an accusation like that, can be devastating for a person living in a small town in Iowa. Singer is a bitter man, there has been no hard evidence to accuse him of this unsolved crime and now, his life has been destroyed. Josh is a writer who is trying to write a novel about cold cases and wants to include the kidnapping of Violet and Tabitha in it. With a personal connection to unsolved cases, Josh contacts Arden when she arrives back at the family home in Iowa. Arden has recently received the family home as part of her inheritance but didn’t realize what shape the home was in. It’s been 15 years since the abduction, Arrowood, the family home looks almost the same since she walked out the door to go to college. Although Heaney has been taking care of the house, tending to the maintenance while it stood empty, problems still occur. Not much has changed inside the house while Arden was gone, it is as if time stood still. Josh wants to move forward with his book so he needs to talk to Arden about the abduction, but he has questions that need answers. Arden wants to talk to Singer, she wants her questions answered. Singer wants to ask Arden a few questions. Lots of questions to be answers which leads to reexamining the past. Did something happen in the past that was ignored that should have been addressed? I thought this novel had a great underlying story but I found the novel to be slow in parts until the end and then I felt everything came rushing out, all the pieces were laid out on the table and they fit perfectly together. I thought the ending was fantastic and I enjoyed how it all came together. I had no inkling on how things would turn out and when the big reveal came, I don’t think there was any hints in the novel for this outcome either. It was such a surprise. I really enjoyed the authors novel, The Weight of Blood as I had a hard time putting that novel down and I was hoping this novel would be the same. I liked that this novel took place in my home state Iowa and that the author referenced many of the stores/restaurants that are in this region. I liked the nostalgia of the novel, how Arden comes back to her childhood home and everything has remained the same. Her childhood room, the furnishings, and the Christmas decorations that were there for her so she can relive her past. I really loved the history of the house, I feel that brought warmth to the novel and put it all together. This wasn’t as good as her first novel but I will continue to look for books by Laura McHugh.
Arrowood is sort of difficult for me to review. I liked it, but for the most part I wasn't left with the OMG I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT feeling. Part mystery, part ghost story, Arrowood is the story of Arden Arrowood. After the loss of her two year old twin sisters when she was just eight years old, she's spent the last twenty years stumbling through life. I don't want to say too much, but the disappearance of her sisters set the stage for her entire life. What was cool about this story was that it was a ghost story, without being a ghost story. There are no actual ghosts or paranormal investigators looking for cold spots, but there are plenty of spooky happenstances that occur in the house which the reader is led to believe is the work of ghosts. That was pretty cool. The reader can decide if ghosts are at work or not. As far as the mystery, as we get to know Arden and the cast of characters around her, everyone becomes a suspect. There were so many red herrings, any one of them could have done it. I was actually surprised by the actual ending - and it's a doozey of an ending! I wish I could pinpoint exactly what wasn’t working for me. It could be all of the time Arden spent reflecting on her past. I like a book to be told in the present, but a lot of this book was Arden reflecting on her childhood friendships, the loss of her sisters, her time at college, and so on. Every scene was important to the story, and I can't think of another way to get the information across, but I think it pulled this readers attention away from the book at times. In the end, I did enjoy this story but I don't think it's going to be one that stays with me long after I've read it. END NOTE: I think this would be a really interesting book for a book club to discuss. In fact, I sort of wish now that I belonged to a book club so we could dissect this book as a group!
I read a review of book and purchased based on review. I found the book lacking. The storyline was all over the place. A young woman returns to her family ancestral home. She inherited the home and there is mystery to the home. Her young twin sisters had disappeared when she was eight years old and she witnessed their abduction. I will leave it at that. Too many characters and not Likeable characters.
in the wind from the back window. Fast forward to now, after many moves with her inadequate parents, her father has died and she has inherited the magnificent, historic family mansion Arrowood and returns to Keokuk, the place where her twin sisters went missing all those years ago. I like mysteries but am too much of a chicken little to read horror stories, this is the perfect mystery for me. I found myself solving the mystery only to be second guessing myself pages later. Laura McHugh is an excellent author, this girl can write! She makes you feel as though you are actually there, smelling the Fall air, the musty areas of the house, feeling the chill of the autumn air. She captures the essence and emotions of the characters through her excellent descriptions. This book is eloquent, thought provoking and brutally honest, it will keep you guessing until the end with just the right amount of mystery. These types of books aren't meant to be feel good books, but by the end it left me with a sense of feeling good for all the characters. I'd recommend this one.
At age 8, Arden Arrowood was there the day her twin sisters, Violet and Tabitha, just under 2 years of age, vanished. Arden said they were kidnapped by a man in a gold car. At the time, her family was living at Arrowood. Now at age 25, after the death of her father, Arden finds that she has inherited Arrowood, the huge family home built many years ago and located on a bluff on the Mississippi River in the town of Keokuk. Once a very prosperous town with large mansions, it has lost many businesses and become rather rundown. No one has lived in Arrowood since the family moved away not long after the disappearance of the twins. After an exhaustive search, the authorities were never able to find the girls. Moving back to the home reopens many memories of Arden’s childhood there and makes her even more determined to find out what happened to her sisters. She meets Josh whose goal in life is to solve cold cases. The information he shares reopens old wounds but also makes her question more things. Her childhood friend and next door neighbor, Ben, still lives in town as does his mother. As the Arrowood family has been a part of the town for well over 100 years, they are well known and there is a lot of history here. We meet people from the past and wonder if they know anything about the disappearance of the girls. The house itself is rather spooky but Arden is not afraid to live there. As more clues come to light, we think we know who was responsible. I suspected the truth at one time but other clues seemed to knock that out. Do come and read this enthralling story and see if you can solve the mystery. It will truly keep you guessing right up to the end. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope other readers will as well.
A family is torn apart after the disappearance of the twins. Arden comes back to the home where the twins disappeared, and her life will never be the same. Josh gets her thinking about what she remembers until she starts looking at other people and thinking about what others tell her to get to the truth. The truth is revealed, and Arden must learn to accept everything. I liked this story and recommend this mystery. I had an opportunity to read this story through Netgalley.
For the most part, I thought this was a pretty good story. However, there were numerous times when the story would take off and my heart was pumping, it was all good. Then, bam, it would slow down. There was several times that it did this. And when it did, it not only took away from the story, but it really didn't add to the story either. The main plot together with the twists was definitely a good read. And was definitely entertaining. I just didn't like the stop/start part. Thanks Random House and Net Galley for my free e-galley in exchange for an honest review
Arden returned to her childhood home of Arrowood, inherited from her father. She hasn't been there since the tragic abduction of her younger twin sisters, when she was a child. That tragic event has tormented her all her life, since Arden never knew the twins' fate. Now, with the help of a cold case investigator she's thrust back into the mystery. A haunting and suspenseful mystery/romance. Enjoyed the twists and turns intwined in the characters and the cold case! Missed getting the feel for some characters. Good read! 3 1/2 stars. Book free thru Netgalley for honest review.