The Bright Forever

The Bright Forever

by Lee Martin


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The Bright Forever by Lee Martin

A dark, harrowing novel about a nine-year-old girl's disappearance and the lasting impact it has on her close-knit community

On an evening like any other, nine-year-old Katie Mackey, daughter of the most affluent family in a small town on the plains of Indiana, sets out on her bicycle to return some library books.

This simple act is at the heart of The Bright Forever, a deeply affecting novel about the choices people make that change their lives forever. Fact, speculation, and contradiction play off one another as the details about Katie's disappearance--and about the townspeople--unfold, creating a fast-paced story that is as gripping as it is richly human. A nuanced portrayal of the complicated give and take among people struggling to maintain their humanity in the shadow of a loss, The Bright Forever is a compelling and emotional tale about the human need to know even the hardest truth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307209863
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 04/04/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 154,687
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Lee Martin is the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Bright Forever; as well as the novels River of Heaven and Quakertown; a story collection, The Least You Need to Know; and two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones. He has won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Lawrence Foundation Award, and the Glenna Luschei Award. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The Ohio State University. Visit him at

Read an Excerpt

The Bright Forever

A Novel
By Lee Martin

Shaye Areheart Books

Copyright © 2005 Lee Martin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-4000-9791-6

Chapter One

Mr. Dees

On the night it happened-July 5-the sun didn't set until 8:33. I went back later and checked the weather cartoon on the Evening Register's front page: a smiling face on a fiercely bright sun. I checked because it was the heart of summer, and I couldn't stop thinking about that long light and all the people who were out in it; I'd seen them sitting on porches, drinking Pepsis and listening to WTHO's Top Fifty Countdown on transistor radios. I knew they were getting a laugh out of Peanuts or Hi and Lois in the newspaper, thrilling to the adventures of Steve Canyon. Cars were driving along High Street-Trans-Ams and GTOs, Mustangs and Road Runners, Chargers and Barracudas. Some of them were on their way to the drive-in theater east of town-a twin bill, Summer of '42 and Bless the Beasts and Children. Others went downtown. Teenage boys were ducking into the Rexall or the new Super Foodliner to pick up a pack of Marlboros or Kools. Couples were strolling around the courthouse square, lollygagging after supper at the Coach House or a steak and a cold beer at the Top Hat Inn. They were window-shopping, the ladies admiring the new knee-high boots at Bogan's Shoe Store, high school girls looking at the first wire-rim glasses at Blank's Optical, the flared-leg pantsuits at Helene's Dress Shop, the friendship bracelets and engagement sets at Lett's Jewelry.

Enough time and opportunity, and yet no one could stop what was going to happen.

We were just an itty-bitty town in Indiana, on the flat plain beyond the rolling hills of the Hoosier National Forest-a glassworks town near the White River, which twisted and turned to the southwest before emptying into the Wabash and running down to the Ohio. That day, a Wednesday, the temperature had gotten up to ninety-three and the humidity had settled in and left everyone limp with trying. The air held in the smell of heat from the furnaces at the glassworks, the dead fish stink from the river, the sounds of people's living: ice cubes clinking in glasses, car mufflers rattling, screen doors creaking, mothers calling children to come in.

In the evening, when the breeze picked up enough to stir the leaves on the courthouse lawn's giant oaks and dusk started to fall, the air cooled just enough to make us forget how hot and unforgiving the day had been. After the hours spent working at the glassworks or the stone quarry or the gravel pit, people were glad to be moving about at their own pace, taking their time, letting the coming dark and the rustle of air convince them that soon there might be rain and then the heat would break. I was content to sit at the kitchen table, noodling around with the story problems I planned to use the next day with my summer students, one of whom was Katie Mackey.

Later, there would be a few folks who would step up and say they had something maybe the police ought to know. Their names would be in the newspapers-papers as far away as St. Louis and Chicago-and on the Terre Haute and Indianapolis television stations, people who would be in the notebooks of all the magazine writers who'd come-slick-talking out-of-towners with questions. Newshounds from Inside Detective, Police Gazette. They'd want to know how to find so-and-so.

I've never been able to tell this story and my part in it until now, but listen, I'll say it true: a man can live with something like this only so long before he has to make it known. My name is Henry Dees, and I was a teacher then-a teacher of mathematics and a summer tutor for the children like Katie who needed such a thing. I'm an old man now, and even though more than thirty years have gone by, I still remember that summer and its secrets, and the way the heat was and how the light stretched on into evening like it would never leave. If you want to listen, you'll have to trust me. Or close the book; go back to your lives. I warn you: this is a story as hard to hear as it is for me to tell.


We were eating supper. That's what I remember, the four of us sitting at the table: Mom and Dad and me and Katie. It was just a night like that, a summer night, and pretty soon Katie would finish her lemon sherbet and ask to be excused and then run up the street to find her friend Renee Cherry. That's what would have happened. I've known it all these years. Renee and Katie would have made up, said they were sorry about the quarrel they'd had that morning, and played until dark, when Mom would have called my sister in.

But before any of that could happen, I said, "Katie didn't take back her library books."

I was still mad at her because sometime that afternoon she had gone into my room and listened to my Carole King album, Tapestry, and left a scratch on the "It's Too Late" track so it stuck on the chorus-"Too late, too late, too late"-'and I wanted to pay her back. I wanted to see her get in Dutch with Dad, who had warned her about keeping library books past the due date. "Good golly, Little Miss Katie," he'd told her at breakfast. "If you're not careful, you'll be living a life of crime." We knew we were a family that people noticed, envied even, for our wealth and my father's influence in our town. Our family had owned Mackey Glass for years, and my father always told us we had to be careful not to screw up, not to give anyone a reason to think less of us. "If the police come looking for you," he said to Katie, "I'll tell them we tried our best to bring you up right, but you wouldn't listen. Now, I mean it, Katie. Take those books back today."

But she didn't. She and Renee spent all morning on the front porch. They were there when I was getting ready for work. I was seventeen that summer, and I was a clerk and stock boy at the J. C. Penney store downtown. I was standing in front of my dresser mirror, knotting my necktie, and I could hear Katie and Renee in the porch swing. The chains creaked as the swing moved back and forth. Katie and Renee were playing their favorite game-It's Gotta Go-where they made choices between things that they dearly loved. Pepsi or Coke, spaghetti or macaroni, Little Dot or Little Lulu, puppies or kittens, Barbie or Skipper, "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" or "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," Christmas or your birthday. Making a choice was heartbreaking and took hours. Often they'd end up bawling. They'd hug each other and agree that it was necessary. If it wasn't hard, it wouldn't matter. It proved how much they really loved the things they said they'd let go.

Renee's mother, Margot, claimed to have ESP. The sixth sense, she called it. A sign in front of her house said, will tell you your entire life without asking a single question. I'd gone to her earlier that summer. Just for a kick. She held my hands, turned them over, and traced the lines in my palms. "You will be chosen," she told me. "Soon a light will find you. Don't look away."

On the porch, Katie and Renee were trying to decide between The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch: one of them had to go. Katie said that Keith Partridge was dreamier than Greg Brady, but she'd much rather be friends with Marcia than with Laurie Partridge. Marcia was just so cute, and her hair was perfect; Laurie was too skinny, and Katie was fairly certain that she didn't really know how to play that electric piano. Renee, who usually took her cues from Katie, said yes, that was true, but who wouldn't choose Peter Brady over Danny Partridge?

"Maybe I wouldn't," Katie said.

The swing's chains stopped creaking; someone, maybe Renee, dragged her feet over the porch floor. "You can't mean that," she said, and she sounded very serious, like a grown-up. "You've got to be kidding. Danny instead of Peter? No way. Danny isn't nice."

I finished knotting my tie and went over to look out the window. A robin was parading around the lawn. The grass, still wet from the sprinkler, sparkled in the sunlight. The petunias in my mother's flower bed smelled sweet; their pink and red and white petals ruffled in the breeze.

"I think he's funny," Katie said.

"He's not funny," said Renee. "He's retarded."

"What about me?" Katie was getting worked up, the way she did sometimes. She could be a drama queen, in love with the spotlight. The day before, she'd worn sunglasses and posed on the stone bench in our backyard so I could take her picture with my Polaroid camera. I knew her eyes were wide open now as she faced Renee, and her cheeks were filled with air. When she got like that, I told her she looked like Porky Pig. "I'm funny," she said to Renee. "I always make you laugh when I do my Donald Duck voice. Isn't that funny?"

"No, it's retarded."

"You're the retarded one," Katie said.

For a good while neither of them said anything. The only sound was the wind through the trees. Then Renee said, "Maybe I should just go home now."

Katie agreed. "Maybe you should."

"Do you want me to go?"

"If that's what you want."

"All right. I guess you want me to go."

So Renee left, and Katie ran into the house bawling, and she never got around to taking her books back to the library. She ruined my new record instead, and even though I wanted to feel sorry for her because she'd had that fight with Renee, I couldn't, and I said what I did, and Dad blew his top.

"Katie." He leaned across the table and shook a finger at her. "What did I tell you?"

She jumped up from her chair. "I'm going to take them back right now." She was wearing a pair of orange shorts and a black T-shirt. Her brown hair, lightened from the sun, was combed off her forehead and pinned with gold barrettes. "The library's open until seven o'clock. I've got plenty of time."

She never even stopped to put on sandals. They were right there at the back door, but she didn't put them on. I thought about stopping her. I thought about saying, "Katie, your sandals." But I didn't. She was barefoot, and she swung open the screen door. She threw her library books into her bicycle basket and I watched her stand up on the pedals until she reached the top of the hill. Then she sat down and bent over her handlebars, and her long hair flew out behind her, and I watched her until she was gone.


Excerpted from The Bright Forever by Lee Martin Copyright © 2005 by Lee Martin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. As each character begins to tell his or her part of the story, we see that they all have vivid flashes of memory about that fateful day–a smell, a taste, a feeling, the way that the evening sky looked, the sound of Katie’s voice. Beyond setting the scene for the reader, how do these images help you form a picture of who these people are? What are some examples from the book of other events that are remembered in this kind of tactile detail? Are there any events from your own life that you remember in this way?

2. What do you make of the relationship between Clare and Raymond? Why do you think she is afraid that people will find her foolish? Why does she refuse to acknowledge his guilt for so long? What do these two give to each other, and why do you think that those around them are made so uncomfortable by it?

3. Henry Dees says his fixation with Katie comes from the fatherly love he feels for her. Do you agree with this view, or do you think there is something more sinister at play in his mind? Is Henry a harmless eccentric, or a man at war with his own inner nature? He knows that his adoration for the child is somehow wrong, so why is he powerless to stop it?

4. Throughout the novel, we see the purple martins come and go, and both Henry and Clare feel a particular love for and connection with them. Why do you think this is? What is it about the birds that each of them loves? Is it the same for both? And what do the hawks represent in this context?

5. What do you think Raymond sees in Henry that makes him seek him out as a friend? Is he simply taking advantage of someone that he can see right away is weak, or does he truly mean to be a friend tohim? And why does Henry befriend Raymond, even letting himself be taken advantage of?

6. Discuss the character of Junior Mackey. Of what significance is the list Gilley finds of his life goals (all achieved, to the letter) and his senior quote in the high school yearbook: “The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out”? How is Gilley his father’s son, and in what ways does his character diverge from his father’s? How would you measure Junior’s character when all is said and done?

7. Does Henry really want to help Katie and her family? If so, why does he only reveal bits of information at a time, and never the whole story as he knows it? Do you see it as a failing on his part that he is so afraid to tell what he knows? How does the complex relationship between love for another and hatred for himself play out in his actions?

8. Many of the characters in this novel speak of love at one point or another. What are the kinds of love we see in The Bright Forever, and how does the idea of love motivate these people? In the end, which love resonates the most for you?

9. How significant do you find the setting of this novel to be? Could it just as easily have occurred in earlier or later decades? Elsewhere in the country? Would it have the same impact? Why do you think Martin chose to place the action when and where he did?

10. Why does Tom Evers never pursue an investigation of what happened to Raymond Wright?

11. Throughout the novel, there is the looming question of guilt in the matter of what happened to Katie Mackey. Where do you think the blame lies? To what degree are Henry, Raymond, Clare, Gilley, Mr. and Mrs. Mackey, and even the townspeople responsible? Is there one single unforgivable act that someone commits that seals her fate, or does a combination of coincidences, actions, and inactions lead to her death?

12. What do you find to be the most significant moment in the novel, in terms of the character of Henry Dees? Is there a place where you can see that he has learned from the tragedy that he played such a large part in? Or are you left with the impression that he simply continues his life on the same path of inaction, fear, and shame?

13. What does the title The Bright Forever mean to you? What is the “bright forever” the song refers to, in the context of this story?

Customer Reviews

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Bright Forever 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 44 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this "story" was very familiar, because it happens to sound like the crime that took place in my small town in 1972, of course the names and places were changed but it is the same story i have heard all my life. the only reason for this review is to let everyone know "Katie" was real and it shattered our little town to this day.
Meaningful_Book_Lover More than 1 year ago
Oh my, it was a great read but hard to make it through the book with what the content was. I love the way the author gets inside the characters heads as they tell their stories and you can really imagine what that summer must have been like as if you were a part of it! It is a great book to read but very sad. The author does an awesome job developing and visualizing the characters and you really can picture little Katie and how adorable and lovable she was! I was definitely recommend this book, I flew through it!
eak321 More than 1 year ago
Martin's THE BRIGHT FOREVER was an illuminating find. The author certainly has a gift for storytelling and knows how to keep a reader going and going. He provides the reader with small clues which always left me wanting more. It was definitely one of my fastest reads because I couldn't put it down! The story itself is a sad one: a little girl full of life and innocence turns up missing in a small, sleepy town where the biggest news the town newspaper might ever report is the results of the church bake sale. I liken the story to Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES and Kate Atkinson's CASE HISTORIES; however, it was a much richer story than either of those two novels (and I don't recommend the latter at all!). Having just read (and not enjoying) CASE HISTORIES, I was a bit put off at first by THE BRIGHT FOREVER when I started reading and discovered that it was similar in structure and told from many points of view. It's not a structure I'm particularly fond of, as it can be somewhat confusing and overwhelming. Thankfully, author Lee Martin pulls it off beautifully. He offers one story with several interwoven viewpoints and truths, and that keeps the reader guessing. Each chapter is named after a character or a specific date, which tells you whose point of view you'll be reading next. It was confusing at first, but once you get used to switching viewpoints and putting yourself in that character's shoes, you begin to appreciate the novel's style and ease into the story much more easily. I don't want to give away any plot details; I'll let you discover those for yourself. However, think of this quote from the novel: "The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out." That's the heart of the story. Martin gives us a captivating -- yet heavy-hearted-- tale that examines real human nature and behavior.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After I read the synopsis, I was anxious to read the book. Despite the grim content, it appeared to be a real cliffhanger. I don't read a lot of mysteries and novels that are similiar in nature to this, but I was so disappointed and bored. In the middle of the book I started skipping paragraphs and I started skimming through the book. This book had too much character development and not enough plot. I understand the importance of developing the characters, but after awhile I got bored and wanted the story to progress. To each his own, but this book was boring at times and moved too slow for my taste.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Secrets around every corner as this story twists and turns through time and perspective.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Even though this book is a short 226 pages, it was slow going. I honesy didn't get into it until page 96. Even then, it wasn't a book I couldn't put down. It wasn't a terrible book, but it wasn't a great one either.
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I really enjoyed this book. At first i thought it was going to be boring and take me awhile to read, but then towards the middle it became very interesting. It's suspenseful and kept me wanting to read more until i was done. I dont read a lot of books or find too many that i really like and this one is by far one of my favorites.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
In the beginning it can be kind of confusing what with the different narrators- but before you even realize it, you're addicted. You have to keep reading until you just fall asleep with the book over your face. Great details and plot- this is truly one of a kind and I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed 'The Lovely Bones,' by Alice Sebold.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was really good. I never thought that it would end how it ended. It was one of my favorate books to read because it was a huge mystery. I would consider anybody to read this book. i think whom ever would read this book would capture alot of people.all in all it was a really good book to read