A richly imagined debut novel about a traveling salesman and the small town he changes forever
If someone offered you a magic elixir that could conjure any dream you wanted . . . would you take it?
Traveling salesmen like Robert Owens have passed through Evie Dawson’s town before, but none of them offered anything like what he has to sell: dreams, made to order, with satisfaction guaranteed.
Soon after he arrives, the community is shocked by the disappearance of Evie’s young son. The townspeople, shaken by the Dawson family’s tragedy and captivated by Robert’s subversive magic, begin to experiment with his dreams. And Evie, devastated by grief, turns to Robert for a comfort only he can sell her. But the dream peddler’s wares awaken in his customers their most carefully buried desires, and despite all his good intentions, some of them will lead to disaster.
Gorgeously told through the eyes of Evie, Robert, and a broad cast of fully realized characters, The Dream Peddler is an imaginative, moving novel of overcoming loss and reckoning with the longings we keep secret.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.08(w) x 7.73(h) x 0.54(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
The dream peddler came to town at the white end of winter, before the thaw. He had no horse or motorcar, but a low wagon harnessed to himself that he pulled along. He whistled as it bumped over the road behind him, while ahead the wind sifted off the surface of snow and hissed away. His covered jars and bottles tinkled occasionally in their nests. He winced up into the brightness of the sky, where the split, frayed ends of treetops swept at the clouds, his gloved hands tucked into the harness ropes crossed over his chest. His fast breath wraithed the air before his face and vanished.
The steps of his long walk shook the past from his mind and fragmented all the faces of the place he had left. He let them be blurred by the blowing snow. As the brittle day began to soften, he stopped at the side of the road, lifted a small bottle from his coat, and imagined the kindling warmth of the drink inside. He gave it a squeeze but slipped it back into his pocket untasted. The blank spread of farmland surrounded him now, but those houses were all set too far back from the road. He was looking for the homes of the merchants, where town lives bunched together like linen gathering along a pulled seam. As the road turned away from the sun, he came to a yellow-painted house that seemed a good prospect. Two children in winter coats were eating snow off their mittens in the little front yard.
They stared him down as he turned into the gate. He looked at them and raised his eyebrows as if to ask, May I? But they only gazed mutely, the melting snow dripping down their reddened chins. They watched him enter their yard, openly wary while curiosity held them still.
He climbed the few steps up to the porch and gave three sharp raps on the door. Loud enough, confident, not too insistent. Then he waited.
The door swung open on a woman of medium height, whose small brown eyes shrank smaller against the light. Her clothing was old but clean, and a faded apron over her housedress told him he had interrupted the flurry of morning chores.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, ma'am-"
"Who are you?"
"Robert Owens." He touched his hat. "Do please call me Robbie."
Her lips pursed at him, as if to indicate that the word "Robbie" would never cross them. She scanned his person, and then her glance went behind him to the two frozen children staring openmouthed at their own door. Then it went beyond, to the cart he had left outside the gate.
"I'm Abigail Schumann," she told him, not in a friendly way but as though she felt obliged to trade this information.
"Very nice to meet you, Mrs. Schumann. I can see you're in the middle of some work here, so I won't take up your time. I'm new to town, today, and I wondered if I might inquire about a place to stay? An inn, perhaps a boardinghouse?"
In the gloom behind her, he discerned the outline of an elderly man sitting by a window as if he'd been placed there to catch the light, the round of his shoulders dusted white with it. The left side of the man's face hung slack from its bones, and when his eyes met Robert's, he opened only the right side of his mouth. A faint guttural sound tried to reach them at the doorway.
Mrs. Schumann waved the children back to their play, but the children stuck.
"Well, Mr. Owens, I'm not sure what to tell you. We don't get many visitors who don't already have a family to stay with. You looking for work?"
"Oh, no, ma'am, not in need of any work. I make my own living and carry it with me. It's all there in the wagon, you see."
As the wagon was covered over with a thick tarp, she folded her arms across her chest. "No, I don't see."
Robert smiled at her but said nothing. Behind her the old man's mouth was still straining, right side hauling on the deadweight of the left as if trying to save it from quicksand.
"You a salesman of some kind?"
"Of some kind, yes."
"And what would you be selling?"
"Well, ma'am"-he scratched his chin, as though there had been a beard there not long ago-"I'd rather not say just yet, if it's all the same to you. My product is very special, you see, and it needs to be presented in the right way. It's not as simple as soaps or silks or things of that nature, you see."
She huffed. If she was curious, she was not going to let him see that. Instead she pointed a cracked fingertip down the road.
"Keep going until you come to a big brown house with yellow shutters. That'll be Violet Burnley's place. She's alone there since her brother died, and sometimes she'll take in a boarder. Had as many as three last summer when the extra farm help came through. If she says no, you'll probably have to move along."
He touched the peak of his cap again. "Thank you. I greatly appreciate it."
He retreated carefully down the porch steps, as if bowing from the presence of a monarch. Only at the bottom did he turn before walking back toward the children. He knelt on the snow in front of them and wiggled a hand into one of his pockets. Like animals hoping for food, they inched closer.
"For you," he told them, and he held out two small polished stones in the leather cup of his glove. They were blackish blue as night water, flecked with mottles of gold like some people's eyes. "Put these under your pillows tonight," he whispered to the children, "and you will have marvelous dreams."
One at a time, they reached into the stiff palm and picked out their treasure. "Mine is bigger than yours," the small one said. "Stop talking big," his older brother told him, "or the old witch Whiting will come and get you." Smiling, Robert eased himself up, patted their shoulders one at a time, and continued on toward the road. They stared after him a moment before turning back to their mother. "Can't we come in now?" he heard one of them whining behind him. "I'm so hungry for dinner my tummy is rumbling. . . ."
The dream peddler passed back through the gate and bent to pick up the wagon harness. As he was fitting it over his shoulders, Mrs. Schumann clucked her tongue, handed a cookie to each of her children, and sent them away with a smack.
"Odder than a three-legged duck," she muttered to herself as she went back inside.
* * *
The dream peddler plodded on down the road. Though he had seen the sun rise, now the clouds thickened and began to slough off their silencing snow, and before long the promised brown house bobbed into view. Two bare trees had tangled their branches above the gate, rasping back and forth like a fervent pair of hands. Though the garden was smothered now, he imagined it neatly tended below, its flowers unfurling into spring, imprisoned in their gardener's careful plan of borders and stripes. He could feel the winter weakening and the ground beginning to buckle.
Only a few hours ago had Benjamin Dawson left home.
Benjamin Dawson was the son of George and Evelyn. Evelyn had been a Whiting, raised in the big, broad house with the wide, deep porch on the crest of the longest road. Looking down on the other houses, it seemed to have opened its mouth and let them tumble down from it long ago like baby teeth. The Whiting house also boasted one of the few pianos in town, and in summer when Evelyn was a girl, her slow practice notes plinked out from its open windows one by one, uncertain where to land.
When the time came for beaux to call, young Evelyn had few. Like other girls her age, she had achieved a certain look-the hair curling unbridled away from her temples, a brightening in her cheeks and searching eyes-all the physical signs she would soon fall from her family tree. But her mother was weird. Her mother was given to talking aloud to their garden in a high, wheedling voice. She could be heard by passersby, but they could never make out her words; they were not sure if she was talking to her flowers or herself. They were not sure which would be worse. She lit bonfires in the evenings simply to stare at them, not even using them to burn trash or leaves. She'd never actually been caught dancing around one of them, but it was suspected she must. She refused to attend church services, although her husband dutifully took their daughter every Sunday. Sometimes, when she came down the hill into town for shopping, she did not even appear to be clean.
Any potential suitor of Evelyn had to take this mother into account. Though Evie was plump and lovely, with her glossy dark hair and her wide, dreaming smile, she was not aware of it. Evie lacked the sort of showmanship of self that might have distracted callers from a disheveled mother wandering painfully in the background. When young men came to visit, it was impossible to do anything about this. Rose Whiting was sure to say something unsettling or to take no notice of them at all, trailing through the garden beyond the swollen gloss of windows without her shoes.
None of this could be said to trouble Evie. She felt uncomfortable around any young man who came on a summer evening, expecting lemonade and a suggestive swing within the blue-ceilinged porch. The boys she saw every day at school or church activities became strangers then, somehow fumbling and awkward, their feet always crossing and uncrossing, the sweating glasses of cold drink in danger of slipping down through their hands.
* * *
George Dawson was not especially brave. That summer before he asked Evie to marry him, he was helping out for cash on the Coldbrook farm a little way out of town, and every evening if Evie was outdoors, she would see him cycling back along the side of the road. Boys and men who worked hard always had a similar slope to them at the end of the day, Evie thought, their shoulders hanging too far forward. You couldn't see the soles of their boots, but you knew they felt thinner. Evie decided she liked the look of George Dawson coasting down the road. Sometimes she watched for him from behind the curtains in her bedroom window so he wouldn't be aware of her when he pedaled by. She didn't realize, as the stifling weeks passed, that George began to know her presence, like the pollen teasing his nose.
The prospect of Evie's mother took no hold in George Dawson's mind. He did not go for Evie because he was forward-thinking or had somehow missed the hints at borning babies who would be the descendants of crazy grandmothers. George went for Evie because she came down her front walkway to the edge of the road one day. Her right hand swung by her hip, and it was rounded out from a piece of fruit she held. As he neared, she offered it to him, hanging over the fence. The skin of it was bloodred and flecked with gold. It had come straight from the orchard on the hill behind their house.
George stopped the bicycle by touching one foot to the ground. She smiled at him. "You've an awful long way to the other side of town," she said. "Have this."
He couldn't take it from her without touching her hand. When he leaned in, the bicycle had to lean with him, like a dog that wanted to scent her. Palming the fruit, he did not know what to say next.
"It's just like the Garden of Eden," he came out with at last. "You've even got the name!"
She laughed at that. He liked a girl with a ready laugh, he thought.
"I guess you'd better not eat it, then. Best to be safe on that point," and she winked at him over her shoulder as she swayed back up the drive in her blue summer dress.
George took a sniff of the fruit before he placed it in his basket and pushed on. He wondered if any trace of her could be left now on its skin. It did smell a little like he imagined a girl would, if you held her, syrupy and dark.
He took his nectarine home and set it on the windowsill in his room. His brother had married the year before and moved away, so George had the space to himself, and with no one else there to grab it down and eat it slurping, the fruit sat, unmolested, until it began to wither. The nectarine took an odd way of rotting. First it softened down, and then the quiet bruises began to mottle its surface like gathering clouds, but despite the damp summer heat it grew no mold. Its skin wrinkled in until it was puckered all over, in a corner desert complete unto itself.
* * *
The wedding of George and Evie was as grand as any the town had seen. After the marriage in the church, there was a feast for those who dared, up at the Whiting house, complete with roast pig and glistening stained-glass platters of jellied fruits. The light that day was white and hot, the bleaching kind of light. The fields rustled in tune with Evie's stiff dress, and every so often the cicadas sent up their screech of celebration. Fiddlers stomped the back-porch boards so the people could dance in the grass. Children in their Sunday best went speeding through the crowds, with Evie's mother running alongside them, laughing. George held Evie's back under his hand, wondering at the skin beneath the taffeta, proud to be her husband, looking out over the whirling party as if he had created it.
George took Evie home to live in his parents' house while he and his father built another one on the other side of the farm. Between the two houses, the rows of wheat hush-hushed. Once they were moved into their home, Evie enjoyed running down sometimes to June Dawson's kitchen when she had finished her housework. They would sit together mending or shelling peas while the men nursed the fields.
Too many years for their liking, George and Evie remained childless. George harbored a silent suspicion that he could not make a boy of his own because he was unable to take Evie's candent body for granted. The unexpected freckles on her shoulders. The damp, dense hair between her legs. There was too much to know of her; he would never have confidence in knowing, never enter there casually and thus find his way with ease. When men were among themselves, they talked of their bedroom boredom lightly, joked even, and George knew if he could not make a baby, this must be the reason. He laughed along, pretending to understand it all, how a man could grow tired of his woman, could trace her so often he dropped those seeds at the middle of the maze without even trying, but George's laughter did nothing to tamp down his terror. There was no puzzling his way out when he was with Evie. He lay on her, pulling her soft hair over his open mouth like gauze over a wound, shocked every time.
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you think Robert’s magic is real, or only a con? How about what Robert himself believes? Does it matter?
2. What was your reaction to Cora offering her baby to Evie? Do you think it could have worked or made either of them happy? How did you feel when Evie refused? What do you think you would have done in her shoes?
3. Robert’s character could be described as an archetypal wanderer or scapegoat. Does he remind you of any other fictional or historical outsiders who were treated as scapegoats? What about in your own experience? How does your understanding of that dynamic impact your reading of the book?
4. The role dreams can play in a person’s life is central to this book. Have you ever had a dream that pointed you in a certain direction or revealed a truth you hadn’t previously realized? Do you agree with Robert’s claim that a dream can never tell us something we don’t already know?
5. The dream peddler spends his life as an interloper, an outsider, because he never stays in one place. Yet some of the other characters seem like outsiders in a place they have lived their whole life. Which characters do you think experience this isolation? Is it always obvious? Which characters enjoy that status, and which don’t?
6. It seems that much of what drives Robert’s friendship with Evie is his desire to help her. How well do you think he fares with this? In what ways does he help or hinder her?
7. At the end of the book, Robert willingly shoulders the blame for Cora’s pregnancy. Why do you suppose he does this? Would you agree that he is responsible in any way?
8. Robert is drawn to Evie immediately upon seeing her, and the relationship they form drives him to share more of himself and become more personally involved in the town than he has allowed himself in the past, something that you could say backfires on him. Why do you think he was so interested in Evie? Did their friendship change him? Will his role in the next town he visits be different as a result?