A Slant of Light opens with a gritty and gripping scene western New York state: Malcolm Hopeton returns home from fighting for the Union Army and murders Amos Wheeler, the long-time friend and employee who stole his wife and ruined his farm. Field hand Harlan Davis witnesses the murder and tries to stop Hopeton from doing any more damage. Hopeton knocks the teenager out easily, and Hopeton’s wife, Bethany, raises a derringer and shoots him. He hurls her to the ground, and she dies when her head hits a stone.
The townspeople build a gallows for Hopeton before the authorities can even bring him into the courthouse. Appointed defense attorney Enoch Stone has a plan to save Hopeton: portray his wife as a jezebel. Stone appeals to Harlan, the coveted eyewitness, for help.
I read on with trepidation, wondering if the townspeople would end up excusing Hopeton’s violence against his wife based on flaws in her character. Historical fiction authors have a difficult choice; they can write characters with historically accurate beliefs, or they can write characters with modern sensibilities that are more palatable to readers. The outrage of many readers over Atticus Finch’s racism in Go Set a Watchman provides an example for why authors might shy away from creating characters with objectionable worldviews, no matter how accepted those views were in the past. Yet, William Dean Howells, a notorious critic of historical romances, objected when novels set in ancient times contained characters “equipped with all the science and culture” of the modern age. Rachel Cooke upheld this literary value in The Guardian when she critiqued Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist for equipping a protagonist in 17th-century Amsterdam with 21st-century feminist values.
Harlan and his new boss, August Swartout, are the point-of-view characters for most of A Slant of Light and they have beliefs common for their time and place in history. Yet they also have a moral system that lets them push back against injustice when they see it. Harlan and August come from the Society of Friends, which the Judge condescendingly calls a “community of simple saints.” I did not know much about the Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers. Their free-form values system, which in real life and the novel eschews hierarchy and allows women to serve as ministers, allows August and Harlan to push back against some of the knee-jerk values of the time. Feeling compassion for Hopeton, but also dissatisfied with easy answers, Harlan explains to the Judge, “There’s a whole ugly pile to this story no one seems interested in hearing.” Setting aside Bethany’s past, Harlan sets off to investigate the hidden crimes of Amos Wheeler.
Harlan’s journey to exonerate Hopeton yields rich discovery as well as deeper mystery about the evil that tore apart Hopeton’s life and touched Harlan’s for a time. He meets interesting people, including a youthful, yet world-weary gem, Alice Ann Labidee. When Harlan thinks he has caught her unawares, she informs him, “First you scared a owl, then you snagged your pants back in the brush and last spooked a night bird right outside. If I hadn’t guessed who it was I’d have blown a hole through you.” She acts as an important ally, helping Harlan in the conclusion of the novel.
Lent creates an absorbing world where characters take nothing for granted. Harlan’s sister, Becca, runs August’s household and rarely has a conversation without performing a chore at the same time. The descriptions of her work add vivid detail to the historical setting:
“She’d pulled a beef tongue from brine the previous morning and soaked it throughout the day, changing the water whenever she thought to. In the evening, she’d set it to boil, then as the fire died left it in the pot overnight, the coals enough to keep a low simmer. This morning she’d lifted it from the still-warm water and placed it on a length of plank in the buttery to cool. After hanging the wash, she’d cut up tomatoes and cucumbers, stewed a pot of yellow wax beans with butter, dug horseradish and grated it into clotted cream, then fetched the cool tongue and sliced it onto the platter. Set out crabapple jelly. All of which now waited on the table.”
Lent’s descriptions of Harlan and August working in the fields reveal the characters’ daily concerns and troubles. All of the characters exist in a place of tension between the needs of their bodies and the needs of their hearts. Even while they fall in and out of love with each other and investigate the deepest betrayals of their lives, they still have to cook meals and take care of the fields. Nothing here feels convenient or provided for. Everything these characters do is a struggle. A Slant of Light took me to a world full of lost people with broken hearts who spoke wise and well, contemplating eternity.
A Slant of Light by Jeffrey Lent, 2015
Bloomsbury USA. Hardcover, 368 pages. $27.00.