Before We Sleep

Before We Sleep

by Jeffrey Lent


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The sweeping, intergenerational story of a Vermont family, from WWII to the dawning of the '60s—the most magisterial and moving novel of acclaimed author Jeffrey Lent's career.

Katey Snow, seventeen, slips the pickup into neutral and rolls silently out of the driveway of her Vermont home, her parents, Oliver and Ruth, still asleep. She isn't so much running away as on a journey of discovery. She carries with her a packet of letters addressed to her mother from an old army buddy of her father's. She has only recently been told that Oliver, who she adores more than anyone, isn't her biological father. She hopes the letter's sender will have answers to her many questions.

Before We Sleep moves gracefully between Katey's perspective on the road and her mother, Ruth's. Through Ruth's recollections, we learn of her courtship with Oliver, their marriage on the eve of war, and his return as a changed man. Oliver had always been a bit dreamy, but became more remote, finding solace most of all in repairing fiddles. There were adjustments, accommodations, sacrifices—but the family went on to find its own rhythms, satisfactions, and happiness. Now Katey's journey may rearrange the Snows' story.

Set in a lovingly realized Vermont setting, tracking the changes that come with the turning of the seasons—and decades—and signaling the dawning of a new freedom as Katey moves out into a world in flux, Before We Sleep is a novel about family, about family secrets, and about the love that holds families together. It is also about the Greatest Generation as it moves into the very different era of the 1960s, and about the trauma of war that so profoundly weighed on both generations. It is Jeffrey Lent's most accomplished novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620404997
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey Lent's first novel, In the Fall, was a national bestseller. His other novels are Lost Nation, A Peculiar Grace, After You've Gone, and A Slant of Light, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award and a Washington Post Best Book of 2015. He lives with his wife and two daughters in central Vermont.

The narrator of over 150 audiobooks, Christa Lewis is a 2019 Voice Arts Award-winning narrator, a 2018 Audie Award finalist, and a 2018 Listener's Choice finalist. She has been featured in AudioFile magazine and earned multiple Earphones Awards for recordings that have become Audible bestsellers.

Read an Excerpt

Before We Sleep

A Novel

By Jeffrey Lent

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2017 Jeffrey Lent
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-499-7



In her mind she was already gone and had been some weeks, months even. Half past midnight in the second week of June she slipped from her bed and pulled on jeans and a blouse and carrying her tennis shoes went soundless into the dark hall past her mother's bedroom and across from that the room where her father slept those same months. Down the stairs easing over the one third from the bottom, a tight grip on the rail as she went, on through the kitchen where the screened windows were open to the night air. The clump of lilacs a shadow against one side of the entryway, the last blooms infusing the room. She unhooked the screen door and slowly opened it, the rusty spring groaning a gentle scrape, then let the door settle back into place.

She went into the old carriage barn that had long ago been altered to a garage for winter parking although only her mother's car was there now and along to the stack of old apple crates where she lifted out her suitcase left earlier in the day. The backside of the carriage shed had been rebuilt as a workshop for her father, a place she'd spent many hours as a little girl. She went back into the drive where the truck stood, backed in from the street. She opened the driver door and set the suitcase on the bench seat, climbed in and let off the handbrake and took the truck out of gear. She stood back upon the driveway and leaned into the open door with her right hand upon the wheel and rolled the truck forward, tugging the wheel toward her until weight and gravity converged and the truck began to move. She jumped in and pulled the door to, though not yet latched, took the wheel with her left hand, turned the key to ignition and depressed the clutch and, keeping the clutch pedal down, slipped the truck into second gear as by the light of the small iron streetlights she began to roll down Beacon Hill to the village below. She used the handbrake to keep the speed down, waiting to be close to the bottom of the hill before she popped the clutch and fired the engine. The truck made a small lurch and cough and rolled along and she pulled the knob for the headlights and the dashboard lit up.

Two weeks ago to the night she'd made a practice run, more gesture to herself than need to prove it could be done. That night she'd circled the Common and then driven south a dozen miles and parked along the river with the engine off and watched the moon rise over the eastern hills and fracture and splinter among the eddies and pools of water, listening to the radio out of Waterbury and then had driven home, gliding uphill with the lights off easy as could be before cutting the engine and coming to rest back in the drive. Even that had been practiced those weekend mornings when she rose early to drive into the village where she waitressed at the Double Dot. That evening coming in she smelled tobacco smoke in the entryway and paused but heard nothing. The next morning when she came downstairs her mother was already gone and her father sat with his coffee and a magazine and said Good Morning to her and she replied as she made toast and heard his chair scrape back and he left the house for his workshop with nothing more said.

Thursday evenings after supper her father left the house for the village, "overstreet to Market" was the phrase he used, where he parked at the small VFW behind the courthouse and county sheriff's office, where he'd sit at the bar and listen to the old swing tunes on the jukebox, watch other men shoot pool and drink a single slow draft beer, this taking a little more than an hour before he returned home. He'd speak if spoken to but otherwise blew smoke rings toward the stamped tin ceiling, watching them break apart and fade together. She'd been told or overheard someone speaking of it or perhaps in the way of these things simply knew that was what he did and nothing more. And regardless if he'd driven the truck since the previous Thursday outing, he'd stop first at Sim's and top off the gas.

So this early morning she had three years of meager wages and tips gathered and saved for college in an envelope in her suitcase but also a full tank of gas. Which, along with the truck, she felt was the least he could do. No — that wasn't fair. What she knew was come morning and the discovery that she was gone, he would not allow her mother to involve the police. He'd know she was doing what she had to do, that she always had. He'd let her go. In this way he'd help her go. Even as he'd understand he was part of the reason she had to leave.

She was less sure her mother would come to the same conclusion.

In the village she turned onto the state road and went on through the three blocks of two- and three-story buildings, all dark, the houses set back from the street, the elms and maples dense canopies passing overhead and then lost to the headlights, the streetlights abrupt small flares that died and fled behind her, a wavering row of them out ahead. She drove carefully, alert to the possibility of a cruiser and had her story of sleeplessness ready and reached up and unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse and pushed the suitcase onto the passenger floorboards but she saw no one and soon left the village and the streetlights and was out on the road in the summer night.

She was two months past seventeen, determined and terrified.

When she was in her thirteenth summer she'd find herself weepy or defiant often it seemed at the same time. One evening at the town ball field watching the game between Royalton and Moorefield, standing in her dress and pumps and studying the young men of both towns in their wool uniforms, their muscled arms and sleek ankles, the stretch of their legs as they ran or squatted over the bases, men of twenty or twenty-five, older than she could truly comprehend but for the glimmer that manifested in her stomach and punched up into her chest — these were men and she wanted to understand them but did not. That same evening Frank Chapman, also about to enter seventh grade that coming fall, sauntered up to her and asked where her old man was, why he was not on the home team, then said, "But a course he ain't, he's too old and everybody knows he's full a butternuts." Her hand clenched to fist and shot straight forward, the wet crunch of cartilage along with the crack of current up her arm as Frank's head snapped back and forward again as he sank toward and against her, the blood from his nose soaking the front of her dress as his arms clasped around her for a terrible long time before his knees caved and he sank to the ground. The game was still in paltry play but all of the spectators and most of the players had turned to watch this spectacle and only then did she remember her cry, a voice come back to her as an echo just before she punched Frank.


She'd stood trembling, Frank Chapman cast down before her, his nose a broken fountain spilling slowing spurts upon the ground and she'd looked at those around the ball field and turned her head down and kicked him in the crotch and then turned and ran for home. Up Beacon Hill in the hot evening as his blood dried upon her dress and bare legs.

Driving now she turned the radio on but there was only a hectic static until she climbed the height of land through the narrow gulf and found a station out of French Canada but the fiddle music sent an arc of pain through her chest and she twisted the knob again and found a high-wattage station out of Boston, one she occasionally was able to pull in up on Beacon Hill if the night was clear. "In My Life" was playing and there left behind her was one of the five albums she owned and she welled over with tears, driving as if through rain. Then the song was over and without the disc jockey saying a word another song kicked in, one she didn't know but somehow did, as if there was a sudden vast welter of music that rose out of her chest and came back through the air and over the radio. It had been like this for much of the last year. She crimped her eyes tight against the tears and blinked. A distant world was closing upon her. She didn't understand it yet but it made sense to her. Life, she knew, was different from what she'd thought but also different than it ever had been before. She owned it, and she was not alone. What she heard: She was not alone. Everything had changed. And, though she wasn't yet sure how, she was part of that change. As if the world was ten steps ahead and she was at eight or nine. Only awaiting the guide who would whisper in her ear. Because clearly there were guides.

She had a road map she'd swiped from the Esso station in White River a few months earlier, a map of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. When she'd unfolded it in her room she'd seen that most of Maine was missing, as if the great upper regions of the state didn't exist. There were roads up there, she was certain, that ran between the chains of lakes and vast swathes of forest but perhaps not roads any customer of Esso would be tempted to explore. Still this lack peeved her. To pretend a place was less than what it was, a decision some person somewhere made, a judgment passed, at least implied. This place was not worthy of being acknowledged. Or of being understood.

Over the winter as she studied the map in stolen delightful moments as if meeting with a lover, as if making plans in secret, she also came to a more prosaic truth: The folds of the map wouldn't have been true and tight to their rectangles if Maine had not been sliced off halfway across Moosehead Lake. Coherency, comprehension sometimes came at the cost of completeness. And she understood that.

Her mother had taken her by the hand and led her to the bathroom and stripped off her bloodied clothes and listened to the choked sobbing tale as she filled the bath and then stood her in it and washed her down with a lathered cloth. When she went silent her mother kept working, wringing the cloth and rinsing slowly, humming an unknown song as she often did, some tune from her mother alone or perhaps some song other mothers hummed in all places where life notched close to their own. This humming had been part of her life ever since she could remember.

Her mother gently wrung the water from her hair and then bound her hair up in a towel and pulled the plug and she stood waiting for the water to drain. She did not leave the tub until the water was gone and another towel dried her head to foot and one at a time the sole of each foot as she stepped from the empty tub.

"You think you did the right thing," her mother had said, "but you did not. Don't ever hit anyone again whatever they say or do. I never have and pride myself for it and that's a thing to take pride in. People hurt each other all kinds of ways but in the end there's not a thing on earth worth striking another person for. It only serves to make you small. That boy didn't know what he was saying, he thought he did but he was wrong. You acted from love and that's well enough but love's no excuse. What a person sees in another person, and who that person truly is, why, they're often not the same thing in the least. Hitting him doesn't change a thing."

Her mother was now toweling her hair. She said, sputtering, again shaking with anger and cold, "He said Daddy was crazy, said he was full of butternuts."

Her mother, squatting on the side of the tub, reached for the hairbrush behind her and began to work it through her wet hair and tipped her head toward the window where the last summer sunlight low through the trees was pooled up, spilling in, casting them both golden, making shadows on the walls pale as ghosts. Her voice modulated down now as she said, "All of us are different, Katherine, you get down to it. Some just hide it better than others. He's a good man, your father, and he loves you. Truly. You hold that and the rest doesn't matter."

Her mother smiled then and said, "Step out now and we'll get a nightgown and a little ice cream. That sound good?"

She said, "I called him an asshole. But I don't care because he is."

Her mother rocked back on her heels and looked off toward the window and the paling green twilight there and then looked back at the girl and said, "Any other day I'd wash your mouth with soap. So, we'll settle. I'll leave the soap and you'll go direct to bed. Are we agreed?"

It was not a question and she did not answer but went to her room and sat upright on her bed as darkness fell and sometime later she saw her father cross the yard from the house to his workshop and let himself in and soon the one small window there lit up and the heat of the day drained to a small cooling breeze and she pushed down under the covers and slept. At breakfast next morning her right hand ached, her knuckles scraped and swollen. Otherwise the room was empty, her parents each disappeared into their days. She ate a bowl of cornflakes with two big spoonfuls of sugar and left the bowl in the sink with the froth of thickened milk, unwashed.

She turned the radio off and cranked her window all the way down. The sadness could quickly turn to anger but there was no fury in her this night. It was late enough so the June air was cool, almost chill and she turned the heater on low, enough to feel it on her ankles which was all she needed. The road came to a T and she doglegged west a few miles and threaded through the backstreets of Barre and out again on another road north, back in the countryside of sleeping houses, yard lights, passing the Rock of Ages quarry entrance where the great vault into the earth was bright with floodlights and a pair of flatbed trucks passed her going south, the beds holding loads, wrapped in dirty canvas, the blocks of great weight. Then onward around a long curve and a roadhouse with a wide gravel parking lot studded with pickups and sedans, some sleek, some beaten down. A green neon sign in the one high long window. The Canadian Club. There was a small group of men in a corner of the lot who formed a ragged ring around a pair of lone figures but none seemed to be moving. If it was a fight it either hadn't started or was mostly over. Back down through a swale of puckerbrush, sumac and chokecherry, the smell of a swamp and the early summer pumping of frogs. Then abruptly she braked as a tangle of legs like skeletal marionettes jerked and slid upon the slick summer-warmed pavement, the tawny bodies rising and falling, a great set of luminous beseeched eyes turned into the headlights as the doe froze and the fawn scrambled to stand quivering beside her and Katey was rolling to a stop even as doe and fawn fled off into the dark again and were gone. She turned the radio back on but low, a murmur of rising and falling cadences and drove. Around another curve she passed a house with a single downstairs window lit a pale flickering blue-gray — someone likely had fallen asleep some hours before while the station was still on the air.

She came into a small village crossroads, a half a dozen houses and a general store, all dark and without streetlights and she pulled off into the gravel lot of the store. She'd never been there before but knew where she was. The bisected road was a highway that ran east and west even if at this place it looked to be little more than another paved two-lane road. She saw the blue line of the map in her head. If she turned west in a few hours she'd go into Canada and then come back into America somewhere in Michigan and, she knew from that same blue line, if she managed to follow the road long enough eventually she'd reach the Pacific Ocean. Or close to it. The school atlas was not clear on that. And it was a great distance. But not the distance she needed to travel. There was a void within her and one that could be filled only by heading east. She turned the radio back to a volume she could hear and eased out of the lot onto the highway. The void had to do with water in an elemental way; the void itself was much larger than water but it was a place to start.


Excerpted from Before We Sleep by Jeffrey Lent. Copyright © 2017 Jeffrey Lent. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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