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I may as well admit right off the bat that this is unlikely to be an impartial review.  We've got a soft spot in our hearts for Kathy Hepinstall here at Brothers Judd.  She was the first author to submit her own book to us for review, and that novel, House of Gentle Men (read Orrin's review), remains among the best we've received.  In a just world, it would have been an Oprah Book Club book--it is far superior to most of the dreck they choose--and Ms Hepinstall's second novel would be a major publishing event.   Then, as if we weren't already going to be suckers for this book, she's derived the major plot elements from what we here consider to be two of the most underrated of American films : Hang 'em High (read Orrin's review) and The Night of the Hunter.  So be forewarned, this is the review of a fan.

The basic setup of the novel will seem familiar enough to anyone who's read Davis Grubb's terrific novel Night of the Hunter or seen the extraordinary film version by Charles Laughton.  A young brother and sister--Boone (14) and Alice (12), the narrator--are convinced that their new step-father, Simon Jester, means them no good.  Like the character of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Night of the Hunter, Simon is a bible-thumper, whom only the children can sense the evil in.  Like the Shelley Winters character, their mother, Meg, is so air-headed that she is unable to protect them. There's even ten thousand dollars kicking around, though here it is the the step-father, not the kids, who has it and who guards it jealously.

The first portion of the book is a tense battle of wits between Simon and the children as they try to learn his secrets, particularly what really happened to the wife and son he says were tragically drowned.  But then one evening, after Meg has become pregnant and made the children all the more superfluous to Simon, their mother whispers one word to Alice : Run.

Meanwhile, another story has been ticking along in the background, of a young girl named Persely Snow, who poisoned her mother and father, killing the mother.  At first we are only aware of her because Boone is somewhat obsessed, writing letters to her in the state hospital for the insane, urging her to give her life over to Jesus.  Persley's responses are profanely funny and belittle Boone horribly, but when she escapes, which she does frequently, the police assume that Boone must be helping her.  Eventually she does show up and when she shares her story it turns out that she considers herself a soulmate of Jed Cooper, the vengeance seeking Clint Eastwood character in Hang 'em High, even down to the noose burn around her neck.  She has her own bit of advice for the kids :

    'Poison him Boone,' she added suddenly.  'And poison her too, for being so weak.  For caring more
    about him than her own kids.'

    My brother shifted his position.  The crackle of old leaves and the mulchy whisper of pine straw.
    'Don't talk like that.  Please.  It's not right.'

    'He deserves it don't he?  And don't she?'

    'It's not up to us to judge.'

    'And who's supposed to judge?'

    'God.'

    'There ain't no friggin' God.  There's nothing in the world but the way things are already gonna turn
    out.  You gotta be God yourself, and sometimes even that don't help.'

Persley is recaptured this time, but in the end escapes again and runs away with Boone and Alice, the three of them hiding on Never Island, on seemingly bottomless Lake Shine.

The story builds to an inevitable confrontation with Simon, but with plenty of unexpected twists and turns along the way, and ends much differently than you might expect.  Alice is a marvelous narrator, wise and witty beyond her years.  The homage to a couple of great literary antecedents is wonderful and will hopefully spur readers to seek out the original sources.  In general, it's a surprisingly successful sophmore effort.

I do have some quarrels with the book though.  A couple of its weaknesses are actually magnified by comparison to its source material.  The most chilling aspect of Night of the Hunter is the way in which Harry Powell comes to represent us all.  He is the character who first had the words L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles, and he has a set piece sermon that he gives where he explains that these two conflicting emotions wrestle for possession of our souls.  Hate obviously wins out in his case, but in the scene where he is captured, the boy, John, calls him father and has the same set of reactions that he had when his own father was arrested at the beginning of the film.  There's a recognition that the contest between Love and Hate is a close run thing.  Simon Jester is not afforded anything like this benefit of the doubt; he is simply evil.

Also, in Night of the Hunter, the children ultimately find sanctuary with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), an elderly woman who takes in orphans.  Love has triumphed in her case and it is quite clearly a Christian love, to counter the hate that Powell cloaks in false religious garb.  We see this played out in a scene where Powell sits outside her house, awaiting his opportunity to snatch the children,, whose rag doll contains the ten thousand dollars that their father stole.  He sits on a stump singing an old hymn :

    What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
    Leaning on the everlasting arms;
    What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
    Leaning on the everlasting arms.

    Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
    Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

He's sung this throughout his travels and the way he draws out the word "leaning" will give you nightmares.  But now Rachel picks up the tune and by changing the words just slightly she rob it of its power; she refers to the everlasting arms as the arms of Jesus, and though Powell has been singing the song as it is written, it becomes crystal clear just what his theology lacks.  All of the power in the story shifts at that moment, as we realize that the power of love which resides in Rachel is more than equal to the power of hate. By the time of his arrest Powell, who has been such a terrifying presence throughout the film, is almost a comic figure.

There's a nicely understated pair of scenes towards the end of the movie when Rachel senses that John, who has refused to explain where he and his sister came from, is hiding a terrible secret.  She asks him to get her an apple and to get one for himself too.  Later, John has no Christmas present for her, so he takes an apple and wraps it in an antimacassar.  Rachel has shared and John has learned the knowledge of good and evil.

Ms Hepinstall eschews such Biblical themes, opting instead for a vision of the world as a struggle between predatory men and innocent women and children.  Her first novel was hardly male friendly, but did offer some hope of male redeemability.  This one offers a much bleaker view of men.

She would also seem to have misread Hang 'em High, a common enough mistake, as simply a revenge picture.  In fact, it is about the tension between the emotional desire for vengeance versus the rational pursuit for justice.  It is appropriate to a world bereft of God and in which men are merely evil (as is the case in the novel) for revenge to triumph, but it is hard to believe that such a world will benefit women and children much.

But hey, it's an author's prerogative to portray the world as they imagine it.  And there's so much here to like that I don't want to scare anyone off.  In particular, the "absence of nectar" of the title refers to the disruption which occurs in the family's bee hives as the story unfolds.  Like Night of the Hunter, it is the breakdown of a nuclear family that sets in motion a chain of unnatural events.

    It was time for spring inspections of the bee colonies, but Meg wasn't up to it.  Boone and I put on
    the white bee overalls and the draped hats and went to check on them ourselves.  The frames were
    crusted with propolis and were difficult to pull out.  Many of the bees had died over the winter.
    Poor ventilation or the late frost.  We checked the brood patterns and fed the bees with sugar syrup,
    as the supers were light with honey.  Even though our inspection was rough and unpracticed, we
    knew the colonies weren't thriving.  Perhaps the presence of queens wasn't enough.  Perhaps the
    bees needed fathers.

Sure, it's grudging, but it's still an admission that guys might not be quite so bad in the final analysis.

Kathy Hepinstall does write women's books, in the sense that her political worldview is distinctly female and at least somewhat antimale.  However, she does not write "chick books"; these are thoughtful, compelling books that men will enjoy too.  She's a really exciting new voice in American fiction, and though I disagree with some of her ideas, I admire her ability to tell a story.  I'd encourage everyone to read this book and view both Night of the Hunter and Hang 'em High, then judge for yourselves from among their distinctive visions of the way the world is and of how we might remake it.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Kathy Hepinstall (2 books reviewed)
Author Submissions
Kathy Hepinstall Links:

    -REVIEW: of Prince of Lost Places by Kathy Hepinstall (Laura Lippman, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of THE PRINCE OF LOST PLACES by Kathy Hepinstall (January Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Prince of Lost Places by Kathy Hepinstall (Laura Lippman, Washington Post)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Absence of Nectar (Penguin Putnam)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Absence of Nectar (Penguin Putnam)
    -The House of Gentle Men (Author Website)
    -BIO: (Avon/Bard Books)
    -Official Book Site (Avon/Bard Books)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of House of Gentle Men  (Feminista)
    -INTERVIEW : Kathy Hepinstall (Book Reporter, February 9, 2001)
    -INTERVIEW : Kathy Hepinstall  (Joe Hartlaub, Book Reporter,  February 9, 2001)
    -Interview: Kathy Hepinstall's House of Gentle Persuasions (Lit Kit)
    -INTERVIEW: Beyond the Pages: Kathy Hepinstall (Romance Journal)
    -Nineteen Forty-One (story from The New Delta Review by Eyster Prize Winner: Kathy Hepinstall)
    -ESSAY: Austin writer presents novel view of redemption (San Antonio Express-News Columnist: Judyth Rigler)
    -ESSAY: The House of Gentle Men:  A New Novel by Kathy Hepinstall (Alternative Media US, About.com)
    -REVIEW : of The Absence of Nectar by Kathy Hepinstall (ELIZABETH BENNETT / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News)
    -REVIEW : of Absence of Nectar (Joe Hartlaub, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW : of Absence of Nectar (Cindy Penn, Word Weave)
    -REVIEW : of House of Gentle Men (Joe Hartlaub, Book Reporter)
    -REVIEW : of House of Gentle Men (Margaret Gunning, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of The House of Gentle Men (Mostly Fiction)
    -REVIEW: (Anne Dingus, Texas Monthly)
    -REVIEW: (Susan Scribner, The Romance Reader)
    -REVIEW: (Coffeerooms Bookmark)
    -ARTICLE: Booknews (Edited by Judy Quinn, Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: (KATHERINE CATMULL, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: The House of Gentle Men  Novel by Kathy Hepinstall (Cara Bobchek, PIF)
    -REVIEW: The House of Gentle Men by Kathy Hepinstall  Rating:  ... "Outstanding." (Heather Froeschl, Bookideas.com)

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