Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Keening

LaFaye, A. 2010. The Keening. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed.

Funny thing - I began making the tags for this book before I finished it.  Other than the obvious tags - Maine, rural life, historical fiction, epidemics, ...  I had planned to add - mental illness, autism or spectrum disorder, but I had it all wrong.  It's a matter of perception, and The Keening may change yours.

The Laytons keep to themselves.  Folks in their rural area think Lyza's Pater is crazy - fit only for the "farm" down the road, Elysian Fields, a home for the insane.  Mater's family thinks she's a bit touched as well - must be for marrying Evan Layton.  As for the protagonist, 14-year-old Lyza Layton, she loves both her parents, and cannot imagine life outside her remote, coastal home of 1918 Maine.  The influenza epidemic has hit the area hard and Lyza sees the regular march of keening mourners heading to the cemetery.  She and Pater have survived the influenza, but many others in the community are not so lucky. 

Pater says little.  He carves beautifully intricate faces into wood and then sets them adrift.  He spends hours writing letters, though he has no known friends. Mater takes in sewing and sees to it that Pater eats, sleeps and wears weather-appropriate clothing - difficult chores for a wife whose husband has no concept of time or hunger or other worldly concerns.  Pater talks to angels, writes his letters and disappears into his workshop for hours or days on end, carving, carving, always carving.

But there is love in the Layton household.  Lyza feels it - even from Pater. Despite the scorn and ridicule of local folks, the Laytons are happy in their solitude.  Mater is kind, unflappable and devoted to her husband.  Lyza is enveloped in the cocoon of her family, but Mater encourages her to go to college - to the big city - to Portland. 
"...college will show you a thousand other paths." Are you sorry you took this one?"  Mater startled like I'd poked her. "Not hardly!"  She turned to me, her face pale and waxy in the faint light. "Life's hard, Lyza. Filled with little invisible walls you have to climb over.  The walls surprise you.  Or, who knows, maybe you put them there yourself to keep your parents out, but the climbing's the thrill of it.  The real work.  I love your pater.  I love you.  And this house. My sewing.  And God forgive their stubbornness, my family."
Lyza is afraid, but her only close friend, Jake, entreats her to go.  He will be tied to a life of fishing.  He wants Lyza to see more.  He wants to go with her.  When tragedies strike, Lyza will go to Portland; and she will find the way into her father's world, willing or not.

The Keening is eloquently written with phrasing that captures the mood and period - the remoteness of the community, the sadness of the epidemic, the resourcefulness of Mainers,
I headed down a shoreline road just wide enough for a horse and a body to pass each other.  Trees lined either side.  As darkness filled the road with shadows, I cursed myself for forgetting a lantern.  The moon pitied my foolishness and lit the way.

Perhaps the grand questions that author A. LaFaye hopes to inspire are ones of purpose, the soul, and the afterlife.  The one, however, that comes most immediately to mind is one of perception.  If a home is filled equally with madness and love, is that not a better home than one filled with judgment and sanity?  The Keening is a short and thoughtful book, sure to leave the reader pondering his own grand questions. Recommended reading for Grades 7 and up.

Read an excerpt from The Keening.

The Keening is published by Milkweed Editions, a non-profit publisher with a mission of "making a humane impact on society, in the belief that good writing can transform the human heart and spirit."  This is the first book that I've read from Milkweed Editions.


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