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Starting Over

LOST NATION: A Novel, By Jeffrey Lent, Atlantic Monthly Press: 370 pp., $25

June 02, 2002|NICK OWCHAR | Nick Owchar is an assistant editor of Book Review.

In early 19th century America, there were plenty of places where a person could start over or simply find a place to hide. The wide-open prairies and deserts of the West beckoned, but for a New Englander like Blood, the troubled main character in Jeffrey Lent's "Lost Nation," the West is too far away and too much trouble to reach.

Instead, he points his oxcart toward the deep woods of northern New Hampshire and, as the axles and wheels crack and splinter on the bad roads, the novel opens with the image of his escape:

"They went on. The man Blood in hobnailed boots and rotting leather breeches ... staggering at the canted shoulder of the near ox, the girl behind barefoot in a rough shift of the same linen as Blood's shirt ... her face swollen from the insect delirium that her free hand swiped against, an unceasing ineffectual bat about her head. Her other wrist cinched by a length of the same stripped cowhide tethering her to the rear of the lurching groaning cart ...."

The girl on a leash is Sally, a teenager Blood won in a card game; his big ferocious dog, Luther, trots freely along; the cart is loaded with rum and gunpowder he expects to trade--along with Sally's services--when they arrive at Indian Stream, an unsettled region inviting all manner of trappers, farmers and anti-government types who've set up their own informal principality. There Blood hopes to settle, to perhaps wrestle with the demons that drove him from his family and respectable career so many years ago. And Sally, somehow, is to play a role in this new life.

"If it was a perverse god who had brought her to him," he thinks, "he knew also that he was his own agent, he had some way sought her

Setting up a tavern and a one-woman brothel, Blood is one of two centers of power in the small community. The other is the mill owner Emil Chase, who holds debts to every settler there except Blood. Sally's presence is welcome to the men but not to their wives. She looks on their situation with an attitude that seems older than her years.

"I never had no father and ain't looking for one," she tells Blood. "We're in business together is how I see it--even if there was somewhere to go I wouldn't run off on you, you're the sort would hunt me down and cut me up."

How Sally moves from leash to partnership with Blood is the major narrative focus of "Lost Nation." Having lived in a Maine brothel before Blood's arrival, Sally enjoys a certain freedom with him. They build a small fortune from the tavern, from fur trading and from Sally, who's as privileged in her selection of clients as a Renaissance courtesan. Blood softens toward her, alternating as teacher and business partner, with obvious benefits.

"That fearsome thing you got about you," she tells him, "it just rolls right off up against me, don't it?"

As Blood's tenderness for Sally grows, so do her shrewdness and calculations. A first taste of freedom, after all, only whets her appetite for more. Believing that Blood treats her better only to make "amends for a fester tracked back to before she was even born," she waits to be free of him. She decides "to pay attention to what was passing around her and watch for that opening, wherever, in whatever form it might take." The trick, she thinks, is to be patient.

As Sally waits, Lent depicts the difficult violent circumstances of life on the frontier and an ominous series of clashes with Canadian and American magistrates, who vie for the disputed territory. The author of the much-admired novel "In the Fall," Lent is a skillful and confident storyteller, evoking the seasons, the dampness of the bogs and the muck and the madness that sometimes affects those living alone in the dark woods.

As an adventure tale, "Lost Nation" is an enjoyable diversion, like any historical movie in which Mel Gibson dons a costume. But the secret history of Blood is less well-treated. Lent relates a harrowing domestic tragedy that drove Blood into exile. Each time these memories haunt him, however, Blood turns away to confront Chase or a New Hampshire sheriff or to prepare for the coming winter. Blood may not be inclined to reflection, but that hardly makes for a satisfying story. Even when his two sons arrive, seeking explanations (and challenging each other for the love of Sally, who sees them as her chance), their necessary conversations seem wooden and forced.

Near the novel's end, a final revelation that neatly answers some questions about Blood's guilt feels like the deus ex machina of Greek tragedy, adding to a sense that parts of the story are rather contrived. In fact, "Lost Nation" has a Greek feel to it, from Blood's role as an Oedipus-like outcast to a final conflagration. But these aspects of the novel are ultimately less interesting than the moments when people stop talking and rifles start firing.

*

From `Lost Nation'

Much later. A tin pitcher of rum on the table now and a bucket of water with the dipper tilted across the top. A pair of new logs on the fire and the candle had consumed itself. Outside, Luther had bayed once and that was all. She sat cross-legged on the table with her skirt pulled down over her knees. Just room for their cups between them.

"They say you killed your wife."

"Is that all they say?"

"No."

"I told you not to pester me with what you heard."

"I know."

They were quiet. Both drank. The firelight was grown liquid, runnels lapping and receding as the logs settled and seethed.

"She died," he said. "In an accident."

"A long time ago."

"Yes," he said. "It would seem so to you."

"Not to you."

"No."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't you be feeling sorry for me."

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