“Right from the start of this engrossing family saga, you know that you’re in the hands of a storyteller who knows just where he’s going. . . . You can hear echoes of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy in Lent’s prose. But the presiding geniuses of this dark novel’s painterly, poetic scenes are Robert Frost and the artist Winslow Homer . . . flint-eyed Yankees who never saw a paradise that didn’t have a snake.”Newsweek
A national bestseller and a New York Times notable book, now in Grove Press paperback for the first time, In the Fall is a richly layered epic that conjures the history of three generations of an American family and the dark secrets that blister at its core. At the close of the Civil War, Norman Pelham, son of a Vermont farmer, is found wounded by Leah, an escaped slave harboring a devastating secret. The two become lovers as Leah nurses Norman back to health, and journey north together as man and wife. Their son forsakes the family for the anonymous world of bootlegging and nightclubs, but long-buried truths come to light when their grandson is driven to retrace his history and disentangle his complicated inheritance. Spanning the post-Civil War era to the edge of the Great Depression, In the Fall is a fierce, gripping vision of an American landscape and history, and an unforgettable portrait of an American family.
“A stunning success . . . Builds like a thunderstorm coming over the horizon.”The Christian Science Monitor
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The boy's grandfather came down off the hill farm above the Bethel road south of Randolph early in the summer of 1862, leaving behind his mother and the youngest girl still at home along with a dwindling flock of Merino sheep and a slowly building herd of milk cows. Norman Pelham was barely seventeen, but he was well built in his homemade fine-stitched suit of clothes. His silent manner and extra height deflected any question of his age. His father drove him in the wagon and neither spoke during the hour trip to the depot in Randolph. The summer dust rose up through the trace chains and settled on the braided bobs of the team's tails. Norman was a serious youth who doubted that the secession of near half the states in the union would be quickly resolved. Still, his death seemed remote and unlikely. He planned to do his part as well as he could, but no hero's blood pumped through his veins. He had no desire for glory beyond traveling back up that same road one day. But he did not speak with his father of these things and his father offered nothing of his own fears that morning. Instead they tracked the course of crows over the valley and watched as men they knew worked at the first cutting of hay in the broad flat fields along the river. Some of those men rested their scythes to lift a hat or arm in greeting, some had sons already at the depot or in Brattleboro and some would soon follow. Father and son would incline their heads to the greetings with no need for words, for all knew their destination. They rode on to the strained creak of harness leather above the heavy wheels crumbling the road dust, the father's heart clattering as if loosed from a pivot in his chest and the heart of the boy also in fearsome ratchet. There had been no argument between them, no discussions of fitness or age. The father would have gone himself but could not. The boy was not going in his place. The boy was going on his own.
In Randolph, they drew the team up away from the depot and backed the wagon around so it was headed home. The team stood with dropped heads, sweat lather foaming around their backpads. The father wrapped the lines once in a loose loop around the brake lever and stepped down out of the wagon. Norman climbed down the other side and reached behind to lift out a valise with twin straps that held a winter coat, canvas pants, a boiled white shirt, a small inscribed Bible, extra socks and a razor. All but the razor had been brought at his mother's urging. Norman had planned to carry the razor in his pocket, confident he could always find a strop and soap of some kind. He thought the army might even provide these things. He didn't know; there was no one to ask.
There was a crowd around the depot, which was strung with homemade bunting. His father reached out, took his hand, and they both grasped hard, then dropped the other's hand at the same moment, as if from long practice.
"Well," his father said, his eyes drifting over the wagonbed toward the team.
"Keep an eye on my sheep," Norman said.
"Yuht," his father said. And then added, "Dodge them bullets."
"I'll do her."
His father nodded. "I'll get on to home then."
Norman raised the valise and held it against his back, with his elbow in the air. He echoed his father. "Yuht." As he turned away and walked toward the crowd, he realized for the first time that he would be around far more people than he was used to, yet knew all he needed to do was keep quiet and he could be as alone as he liked.
He rode the train south to Brattleboro for the rest of the day. Around him, men were eating food out of sacks or bound-up in cloth. Norman opened the valise, intent upon retrieving the razor and leaving the rest behind him, and found there on top a piece of cold mutton, tied up in paper and string, and a loaf of new bread along with a half dozen hard-boiled eggs. As he peeled the shells off the eggs, he thought of her egg money going with him. After he ate all the mutton and bread, he closed the valise and kept it held tight between his feet, razor and all.
In Brattleboro the next morning he signed the muster rolls and was issued a uniform and gun as well as a dozen or more other related items. He lived in a tent with five other men from rare and unknown parts of Vermont and went through a couple of weeks of drills and simple training that struck him as having little to do with anything at all. He learned over time that he was fortunate in having officers who were neither ambitious nor career men, but who had age and experience. In early July, they rode trains south and joined the thronged mass of the Army of the Potomac. Norman now carried only his razor in one pocket and his small Bible in another. He'd saved also his extra socks.
It was late September of 1865 before he passed through Bethel on his way back to the hill farm, months after his fellow members of the 2nd Vermont had returned in pairs or small groups. Although word of him had spread beyond that group of veterans, they would not speak of him; any of them who were approached by his mother would only assure her he'd be along any day and last they'd seen him he was fine. There were still those few whose eyes rose over whatever length of road they could see from time to time to see if the figure in the distance was him. Some among them even doubted he'd come at all, but even those doubts were less of a judgment than a curiosity. They were not the sort of men to place themselves in another's shoes and would not voice an opinion unless the matter bore directly upon them. And this with Norman did not. Still, they watched the road.
So they saw him pass along the road that Indian-summer morning with the sugarbush maples flaring on the hillsides and the hilltop sheep pastures overgrown with young cherry and maple. Word ran along the road ahead of him so near all his neighbors and townspeople saw him walking in the long easy stride of one who counted walking in months and years not miles, a rucksack cut from an issue blanket strapped to his back and by his side a girl near his own height in a sunfaded blue dress and carrying her own cardboard suitcase bound with rough twine. Norman wore his army brogans while the girl walked barefoot in the dust, her own pair of wornout boots tied together by the laces and slung over one shoulder. Norman raised his hand to greet those he saw and most nodded or waved back. And those that hung back in barn doorways or stood behind curtains he paid no attention to, satisfied to pass them by and telling himself he held no malice to those who ignored him. At one point the girl said to him, "They watching us."
"They been watching us all along the way."
"They has been. But these your folks."
"All they got is the right to look."
"No maybe about it," he said. "They can look all they want and think what they like, it don't matter to me and it don't matter to you." And he meant what he said; he'd walked through any fear he might be wrong back in southern Virginia. There was nothing cocksure or militant in how he felt, just his own certainty at having settled his fears and doubts. If there was any hesitation left in him it came from his great tenderness for her, his knowledge of the cruelty a person may inflict upon another and his determination to shield her from any damage that his own people might cast upon her. He was not simple in love but ferocious with it.
They turned off the road less than a mile from Randolph village to climb the half mile of gravel track to the hill farm where only his mother and youngest sister now waited, his father kicked in the head by the old mare as he bent to pick up a dropped dime two years before. The letter with this news had reached him just days before the battle of Fredericksburg in which men died before, beside and twice behind him as his body recalled his father's advice and he dropped in a long swivel from his knees to rise again with the breech-loading Springfield coming up before him. His older sisters married and gone, Miriam on a farm in Iowa, Ethel to a paper-goods man out of St. Louis. As he and the girl passed the final house along the way, the farm wife was in the side yard stringing laundry, with her arms full and her mouth agape with pins, and so was unable to wave or call greeting but just watched them pass by, the neighbor boy grown war-hardened and the green- eyed girl with her African body so lovely in the fall sunshine, her skin the color and luster of hand-rubbed heartpine. Norman called out and the girl raised a hand in a gesture the woman read as saying You're over there and I'm over here and I'm going to stay right here unless you invite me otherwise. As they continued on up the hill, Norman thought he heard the soft spatter of clothespins falling into the grass behind them.
He was wounded twice. The first time was at Gettysburg when the 2nd Vermont found the breach in the flank of Pickett's fated charge and waded in to turn the battle, charging across the field through the offal of dead and dying men and horses, the siren of battle at full crescendo. Norman was wounded as a red-eyed cavalryman swept through them with his sabre flaring in the dying summer light and sliced Norman's right arm deep to the bone and the sabre flew up from the blow and was coming down again. Norman had dropped his Springfield but raised his left arm as he threw his body against the man's horse behind the long blade and drew the man down on top of him, knocking the wind from himself and leaving it to others to drag the rebel man from Norman and run bayonets through him. They saved the sabre and presented it to him when he returned to the company from the hospital at Lee's old home outside Washington but he did not want it, still able to feel the sweat coming from the cavalryman's mustache and chin as he came down on him, still able to smell his glaze of fear and death as they struck the earth and the sky darkened with the bodies of his comrades closing over them.
The second wound came almost two years later outside Richmond after that city fell and Lee's army was crumbling before them. It was late in the day when the company crossed a small stream with the dogwoods blooming and the few spring leaves on the trees fine and pale, the size of mouse ears. The men they were pursuing had gained enough ground to turn their one fieldpiece upon the 2nd and fire off a final canister of grapeshot that blew apart a dozen feet from where he crouched with the others in poison ivy and trout lilies, hearing the whistle of the grape coming in. While the shell fell short, it sent something hard through the air, a piece of tree perhaps, which struck Norman in the head, tore apart his left ear and left him unconscious and alone while the company camped around him. Sometime during the night he woke and, still senseless, crawled off in the manner of a sick animal seeking better shelter in which to die. He awoke in mighty pain at dawn next to a hedgerow somewhere in Virginia, his ear a throbbing thing attached to him and his brain ill and scattered, shivering with the dew already burning off before the rising sun and his tongue thick with wanting water. He'd rolled onto his good side to keep his ear in the air and away from the ground. He slept some like that and waking again saw a girl squatting there beside him, her face serious as death itself and her hands cupping a dipper gourd of water as she asked him, "Is you dead?"
He lay there etching her against the pan of his brain: the fine raised cheekbones that brought all focus of her face to her wide eyes already bright before the sun added light to them. The fine cleft chin he wanted to hold as an apple and the lips cracked with her own fearsome journey and still lovely as if chiseled from a piece of veined rose marble. Still he could barely speak from pain but felt he must or she would flee, thinking him dead or somehow dangerous, and so he said, "I just need to lay here a bit." Then, his head and ear booming, he asked, "Is that water you got there?"
She nodded and held the back of his head as he drank and then settled him slow back onto the ground and he slept again. When he woke later she was still there and the gourd was full again and she helped raise him up and gave him water. The sun was up but they sat in the thin shade from the hedge. She had biscuits and a hunk of ham with the mold scraped off and she fed some of that to him and he slept more. At full dusk he was awake again and heard whippoorwills calling each other off in the darkening woods. The girl stood over him this time. She said, "You got to get up and walk. It ain't far but you got to go. Another night here fever gonna carry you off. I spent too much time to have that happen." He saw that she had blankets looped long and narrow over one shoulder. She said, "You ain't that bad hurt. You ain't dead. Rise on up now." And when he was standing, his body pressed to hers and one arm around her and one of hers around him, he asked her name and she paused, her face turned away from him down into the folds of the blankets she carried. She said, "Leah."
"Why that's a pretty name," he said. "From the Bible."
And again slowly as if gauging him she said, "I guess so. Anyway its my name."
He wanted to tell her she was prettier than her name, any name, but the words were wrong; that, and he was still seeing her blackness, still thinking of her as the most beautiful colored girl he'd ever seen. As the land fell away with the dark, the pain in his head was made a lesser thing against the girl beside him.
They moved that way into the night, the girl leading him through fields as he struggled to find his own balance and when that would not happen finally let himself move along with her as with a current. She led him down through a woods of old oaks and into a narrow ravine with a small stream and he guessed this was where she had carried his water from. In the dark she brought him to a hidden dugout shored with logs and shielded with a thicket of rhododendron, the open front of the dugout half covered by a hand-laid drywall of stone, old enough so the surfaces of the stones were soft with moss. Inside she made a fire with flint and steel, and in the light they ate the rest of her ham and she brought more water up from the stream. She kept the fire small but with the food it warmed them. She asked where he was from and he told her and she asked where that was and he said up by Canada and she knew where that was. He asked where she was from and she thought about it and then said, "Round here." He didn't know if she was lying or telling the truth and knew it wasn't his business to probe. She had every reason not to trust him and he realized how exceptional her care of him was, how great her risk had been and in her eyes still likely was. He sat with her in the cave, built he guessed by her own kind. Word of this place and others like it passed along a vein of trust, a line of knowledge outside the reach of his own race, and he looked at her, feeling he was beginning to know her. The idea of sex bloomed in his mind and he moved a little away from her and took up one of the two blankets, leaving the most room he could for her by the fire and told her, "You've been awful helpful. I just want to tell you that. Dawn tomorrow I'll get out of your hair and get on and find my regiment. They'll probably go ahead and shoot me for deserting anyway." And seeing her eyes flare at this he said, "That's a joke. I bet they think I'm dead. Probably think I'm a ghost when they see me."
She made a face at him that was not quite a smile. "You're not any ghost."
He grinned at her. "Not yet anyhow."
"Some strange kind of man, that's what you are."
"What're you talking about?"
She shook her head and said, "Scuse me." Her tone sudden with spleen she stepped around him, ducking low until she was outside, and he lay and watched her disappear in the darkness. When she came back she was silent and so was he. Something had been extended from both of them, some straw bridge from one to the other, but then it had fallen apart and not either of them knowing what made it fall but both knowing it was gone. As children both feeling the fault and afraid to admit it. So they said nothing.
During the night she moved him close to the scant coals and wrapped in her own blanket had spooned against his back and so he woke at bare dawn with her against him and he lay without moving until there was light in the treetops and she stirred behind him. Through both their blankets, he felt the long muscles of her thighs against the backs of his and her torso and breasts pressed tight to his back and one arm flat against his chest inside his own blanket. Only when he felt her wake fully and leave the dugout did he move at all, so that when she returned he was up with his blanket folded, moving his arms and legs to wake. She led him to the stream and there ordered him onto his hands and knees and held his head in her hands and lowered the wound into the shock of water, letting her fingers run over his scalp to clear the matted blood and woods-trash, her touch warm even in the cold water. When he stood he found his balance and she stepped back from him and as if accusing said, "Should have done that yesterday."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In The Fall"
Copyright © 2000 Jeffrey Lent.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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