Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

A Peculiar Grace

A Novel

by Jeffrey Lent

“Family-fracturing secrets are at the heart of Lent’s luminous third novel, a transcendent story about the healing power of love and art. . . . This sympathetic depiction of a decent man wrestling with his demons while deciding whether to revive an old love or open himself to a new lover is . . . magisterial and beautifully written.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date June 17, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4366-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date August 21, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3965-8
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

Acclaimed novelist Jeffrey Lent’s A Peculiar Grace was hailed by Howard Frank Mosher as “the best book to date by one of the two or three most gifted American novelists since William Faulkner.” It is a timeless tale of love, destruction, and rebirth through artistry set in modern-day Vermont.

Hewitt Pearce is a forty-three-year-old blacksmith who lives alone in his family home, producing custom ironwork and safeguarding a small collection of art his late father left behind. When Jessica, a troubled young vagabond, appears in his backwoods one morning fleeing her demons, Hewitt’s previously hermetic existence is suddenly challenged—more so when he learns that Emily, the love of his life whom he’d lost twenty years before, has been unexpectedly widowed. As he gradually uncovers the secrets of Jessica’s past and tries to win Emily’s trust again, Hewitt must confront his own dark history and his family’s, and rediscovers how much he’s craved human connection. The more he reflects on the heartbreaking losses that nearly destroyed both him and his father, however, the more Hewitt realizes that his art may offer a deliverance that no love or faith truly can.

Set in the art scene of postwar New York, a commune in the early 1970s, and contemporary small-town New England, A Peculiar Grace recalls Kent Haruf and Wallace Stegner. It’s a remarkable achievement by one of our finest authors and an insightful portrait of family secrets, with an unforgettable cast of characters who have learned to survive by giving shape to their losses.

Tags Literary


“Lent has been likened to Cormac McCarthy, a comparison borne out in this lovely, slow-moving river of a novel and its ability to capture the voluptuousness of a man’s solitude.” —Karen Karbo, Entertainment Weekly

“Richly atmospheric, raw, and often beautiful, his description of landscape and weather, process and tools, his seamless junctures into Hewitt’s memory make for an epic feeling over just a summer of story time. . . . the final moments . . . grip and satisfy, even as they surprise.” —Ashley Warlick, Charlotte Observer

“This mesmerizing psychological portrait is a stark and relevant testament to an awesome new voice.” —The Strand Bookstore, New York, NY

“Lent presents a commanding present-day drama of rootedness and disconnection, desire and fear, inheritance and freedom. . . . Lent has forged a many-faceted plot, vital characters, convincing psychology, and finely articulated spiritual musings. . . . Lent’s prose is lustrous—rich in supple dialogue and finely patterned imagery. Echoing the rhapsodic specificity and gravitas of Steinbeck and Kent Haruf, Lent has constructed a resolute tale of paradise lost and found.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Family-fracturing secrets are at the heart of Lent’s luminous third novel, a transcendent story about the healing power of love and art. . . . This sympathetic depiction of a decent man wrestling with his demons while deciding whether to revive an old love or open himself to a new lover is . . . magisterial and beautifully written.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Another intense exploration of family ties, doomed love, and existential questing from talented, risk-taking Lent. . . . As always, Lent writes compellingly of people untangling their pasts and striving to elucidate their connection to the world as well as each other. . . . The ecstatic closing pages will strike some as over-the-top, but sensitively developed characters and gorgeous prose will keep most admirers of serious American fiction engaged.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This novel is akin to a long walk through a dark psychological forest and may appeal to fans of Howard Norman or Wallace Stegner.” —Library Journal

“Unlike nearly everyone else who practices the art, Jeffrey Lent was never a ‘beginning novelist.’ He arrived, as it were, at the height of his talent and A Peculiar Grace increases his reach. It is an uncomfortably brilliant novel both in the human dimensions of the story and the intense grace of the writing.” —Jim Harrison

“From the first sentence to the last, A Peculiar Grace is infused with all of the rich life that only Jeffrey Lent can bring to a novel. Abounding with wonderful characters, surprising events, genuine suspense, a star-crossed love, and a great sweep of geography, story, and history, A Peculiar Grace is the best book to date by one of the two or three most gifted American novelists since William Faulkner.” —Howard Frank Mosher

“One of the reasons for fiction is that our lives can somehow become more alive between pages. What Jeffrey Lent does is allow us slowly into other lives—full of dignity and loss and rebound, and somehow he manages to make these lives our own. We walk out of this novel with the full knowledge that we, as readers, are changed. This is like listening to a song we knew, but were never quite aware was there. A beautiful, haunting echo. I closed this book and walked into another world.” —Colum McCann

“In this powerful story of people healed by love and art, Jeffrey Lent once again gives us a rich compelling novel with complex characters you’ll remember long after turning the last page. After reading his three novels, I find myself having the greatest compassion for Lent’s sometimes tortured, but always dignified characters.” —Ken Favell, Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop, Brookfield, WI

“Lent retains his ability to draw full, fascinating characters.” —Stephen Amidon, Washington Post

“Lent’s characters are unforgettable and very real, and his patient unreeling of this twisted story kept this reader enthralled. Another excellent novel from the author of Lost Nation and In the Fall.” —Dear Reader

“A passionate novelist whose graceful peculiarity only makes his work all the richer.” —Cynthia MacDonald, Toronto Globe and Mail

“The crux of A Peculiar Grace is how a person relates to the past. . . . Like William Faulkner and contemporaries such as Thomas McGuane, Annie Proulx, and Kent Haruf, Lent . . . seems most interested in illuminating lives lived in forgotten parts of the country, at least forgotten by the mainstream. . . . Lent has been compared to Faulkner for his willingness to subvert the standard conventions of language and writing.” —Regis Behe, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“There is one story that never grows tiresome, no matter how often told—and it goes like this: There are parts of a man that will stop working if left too long untended. . . . [Lent’s] tenderly tough third novel . . . keeps us invested by calling upon the very resource its characters are trying to find within themselves—the hope that there are circumstances in which broken people can begin again.” —John Freeman, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Like Hewitt, the blacksmith who pounds hot iron to shape intricate works of art from his unique vision, author Jeffrey Lent uses his distinctive writer’s voice to craft a painfully elegant story about love, art, and second chances that is a joy to behold and one that is not easily forgotten.” —Donna Volkennant, BookReporter.com

“[Lent] can describe everyday things—a grape harvest, a dirt road—with fresh, vivid language. He’s also good on the inner life of the middle-aged man: ‘His reveries and regrets, his sudden bursts of energy set against a general feeling of fatigue and winding down.’” —John Broening, The Denver Post

A Peculiar Grace is an entertaining read, with a plot of unexpected turns and an ending that resists tying up loose ends in favor of an opening into new possibilities.” —Reagan Upshaw, San Francisco Chronicle

“Lent masterfully creates a story that . . . takes on the slow and measured rhythms of a small-town New England summer. While dysfunctional family novels are common, Lent offers a remarkable addition to the genre. A Peculiar Grace is a sincere, honest telling of a man’s struggle to mature and embrace a life preserver after years of failing to find peace.” —Gary Williams, Rocky Mountain News

“Hewitt Pearce, a 43-year-old blacksmith living alone in the wilds of Vermont, is beginning to come to terms with his past when Jessica, a young women with her own demons, appears in his yard and Hewitt’s solitary days give way to reconnecting with both himself and his community.” —Penny McConnel, Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, VT, Book Sense quote


A Book Sense Selection



When the vehicle passed through his yard in the middle of the night and continued up the hill and into the woods along the rutted ancient road Hewitt Pearce barely registered it. Kids out jeeping on an early summer night, a signal start to summer. What he had no way of knowing were the events unfolding that same night three hundred miles away that once revealed would alter forever his life of solitude. A second chance.

Now with dew on the new June grass heavy as frost Hewitt was standing in jeans soaked to his calves with his second coffee, just beyond the barns among the apple trees, an even dozen ancients with low-slung heavy branches, trunks twisted and thick and dense below the canopy of pink-hearted white blossoms. The sun was up over the eastern ridge and striking the top of the western ridge, the young leaves of the treeline illuminated more golden than green, glowing. Two weeks to the solstice, five twenty-seven when he’d left the kitchen.

Shivering with his wet pants and the morning air, a flannel shirt open over the T-shirt which would be all he’d want once the sun rose higher. The old barn cat had met him at the porch and followed him across the gravel yard but stopped at the deep grass to avoid the wet, too old to care if there were mice among the apples. A sack of cat food was ripped open in the carriage barn, leaning against haybales yellow and moldering, gone to waste except for the warm winter bed they provided the cat.

A freestanding brick building was set in the bank that dropped off from the old orchard—his smithy, his hearth, his forge. The drop of the bank sharp enough so the door opened onto stairs that led down eight feet, deep enough so the building had windows and large double doors opening out the north side. He considered walking over and cleaning the clinkers from the cold forge and lighting a fire to bank and hold while he went back to the house for breakfast. There was work enough to be done. He swiped the mug out before him, spewing a mist of cold coffee. He just hadn’t decided if it was a day for iron. He had no work week or month or pension or retirement plans. All he had was the work he chose. This approach created problems but not for him. For a time he’d considered having the telephone disconnected but hadn’t, knowing this would lead only to more unwanted visits from people who thought the fact they wanted a thing made meant he’d agree to the job. Walter Boynton had provided Hewitt with an answering machine, relieving if not solving most problems of communication.

Considering the possibilities of his day, he paused.

From the ridgetop rose a pale thin stream of woodsmoke. And because he knew that ridge as precisely as each of the gnarled trees he stood amongst he knew the location of the campfire. And only then remembered the passage the night before. He stood a bit more and then said, “Shit.” He was not interested in rescue but whoever was up there was obviously stuck. It was a nice place to camp but it’s the rare camper who sets off at midnight. He could go on with his day and wait until whoever it was appeared to ask for help or get it over with now. So far he’d committed to nothing. But once he did he’d want no disturbance. He’d more than once resorted to hiding in the old stack of hay to avoid incoming interruption. His friends knew where to find him and he suffered no embarrassment in coming blinking back into the daylight with hay in his hair but it worked well on those who would bring only irritation.

He went to the shed and sat on the drawbar of the tractor to lace his boots. It was a sharp uncomfortable perch but it did the job. No need to check the fuel—he knew the old red Farmall had at least five or six gallons in her. He wrapped a log chain with a hook on one end and clevis and pin on the other around the drawbar and climbed into the seat, thrust the throttle up halfway and pressed the ignition button. The tractor coughed and choked and came alive and the shed filled with black then gray exhaust but Hewitt sat patient until the engine was running smooth before backing from the shed and turning uphill. He took his time, putting along in second gear. He was in no hurry and it was a pleasant morning, the sun now warming through the flannel on his back and his speed would allow whoever was up there plenty of time to hear him coming.

The road was rutted with spring melt and the frost come out of the ground but easy going—a farm lane between the hayfields that Bill Potwin cut and baled each summer and limed and spread manure upon each fall, the latter conditions imposed by Hewitt and held to with an unspoken grudging grump by Bill, an irritation manifested by his penchant for holding off doing the job until the last weeks of passable fall weather. Hewitt didn’t mind, in fact rather enjoyed Potwin’s small protest against being made to do what ought to be done anyway. Too many summer homes carved out of old farms where the hay was free had spoiled the farmers just a little bit—Hewitt had sympathy since free hay was free hay and welcome in an otherwise ungrateful business but then again he knew how things should be done as opposed to those who just wanted things to look pretty and placed no value on the hay. Hewitt knew of a couple of farmers who actually got paid to hay some of those summer home fields.

Into the woods now and he could smell the woodsmoke. The road got rougher and he idled down. These were big woods here, mostly rock maple, ash, beech and hemlocks. He crested the ridge, cool again under the filtering trees and gradually the road swung northeast as it followed the crest. Back in the woods were stone walls lining what had been the old road and time to time there would be an opening in the wall, often flanked with upright stone posts and back behind were the cellar holes and jumbled foundation stones of old farms.

He dropped into first as the little tractor worked along. Now he could see fresh tire treads, slick bare slipping patches. A nasty fresh scrape on a blunt pointed rock anybody who ever drove this road knew to swing wide of even in the dark.

When he came round the bend where he knew from the smoke he would find it, it was shock enough that he braked hard as he killed the ignition and the tractor choked a popping backfire and died.

Damnedest thing he’d ever seen. Even counting the mystery hunched like a huge stone turtle twenty feet back in the woods—the drystone chamber with a vaulted low entrance also of stone—one of five such structures ancient and unexplained in the area. But directly before him this morning was a Volkswagen Beetle handpainted in swirls and dots and symbols of unlikely origin in a mixture alarming even to his own unblinkable eye. Graffiti. Or Aboriginal rock art. Some far distant cousin to the handpainted rainbow ex-schoolbuses and micro-buses of his younger years.

The Bug sat in the road. No list from a flat tire or reek to suggest a split oil pan and blown engine. Just stopped. Off to the side was a small fire and a woman sitting on a rock. She looked at him and then back to the fire. She was not trying to cook anything. She sat on the rock with her knees pulled together and her feet apart, her hands open to the paltry warmth. In black jeans and a white T-shirt with black hair cropped badly down her nape and pushed behind her ears. She was studying the fire as if he wasn’t there. So Hewitt folded his arms on the cracked rubber of the steering wheel and studied the car.

Under the paint it was a nice old Bug—early ’60s with the windshield split down the middle and the oval rear window. The license plate was unfamiliar so he squinted and sat full upright. Mississippi. He looked at the girl, the young woman. Sometime in his late thirties he’d lost the ability to ascribe age to most women between seventeen and thirty or so.

He stood down from the tractor and went halfway the distance to both girl and car. Here he could see that the rear of the VW was stuffed with belongings. Clothing and such it looked like. She was watching him now and he was close enough so he had her pegged mid to late twenties. Her eyes dark as her hair and wide upon him but within that width there was a brilliant shining distance—something untouchable regardless of what he was to do or say. He felt something like a shiver not from cold but from her eyes as if understanding he could kill her and her gaze would not change. Her hands still open to the now dying twig fire.

He thought This is someone who can’t even build a decent fire. He considered carefully and in an offhand gentle voice said, “I saw the smoke. It looks to me like you’re not where you planned to end up.”

She did not hesitate but said, “That car’s useless. Can you give me a ride?”

Ignoring his tractor as much as she seemed to be he said, “Could be. Where you headed?”


He pondered a moment. “Austin?”

She nodded.

He said, “Austin, Texas?”

“Oh never mind.” His stupidity too great to bear.

Something way off here. But she sure had a pretty voice. Deep but dragging sweet over the syllables as if words others took for granted were savored and valued throughout their possible peaks and valleys. He said, “What’s wrong with the car?” And took a cautious pair of steps closer to her.

She said, “Not one thing in the world. Except where it is and quit.” And he could smell her now, the long unwashed body so far past sour as to be nearly sweet, sweet that is if the earth made humans its own. A smell he associated with old men in winter-layered clothes.

“You said it was worthless.”

“What’s worthless?”

“Your car.”

“Do you have a can of gasoline on that tractor? Or in your pocket?”

He smiled. “Nope. But it’s your lucky day. This old tractor runs on regular gas, not diesel like the new jobs. So there’s a tank down to the house. We can fix you up.”

“No you can’t,” she said and stood and stepped away from him, not toward the car but toward the stone chamber tucked back in the woods. As if she had already determined it was a defensive position. “Who sent you here anyway?”

He took a breath and let it out slowly. “Well, my name’s Hewitt Pearce and nobody sent me except myself when I walked out the house this morning and looked up and saw smoke. I’m happy to gas that Bug and you can be on your way to Texas. Although I have to say you’re taking a peculiar strange route.”

“Don’t try that line on me.”

“Listen,” he said, his palms stretched open before him as if this would prove him harmless. “Pretty much everything you’ve said to me I don’t understand. But you seem to be in a rough patch and I’m not talking about being out of gas.”

She had her arms not crossed but wrapped around her chest hugging herself. She looked at him. A piece of her hair fell onto her forehead just above her eyes. Then looked away and walked to the car with her back to him, paused and walked back to the fire, her head down now studying the ground. She did this again. Several more times after that. Hewitt did not move, watching her.

Damaged and no telling how far or deep that ran beyond what he already could see. Get the goddamn gas and get her moving. Maybe even tow the car down the hill if she’d let him so he could keep his eye on her until the car was running and on its way. But he said, “What’s your name?”

She continued her walking that had become nearly passive or restful someway he could not put his finger on and with her face turned earthward said a word he could not understand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I pound iron and my hearing’s not what it could be. I didn’t hear you.”

She stopped on her way toward the VW so her back was to him. He could see her shoulder blades through the T-shirt. And he was swept with a sense of her fragility even as she lifted her head still turned away and said, “Jessica. My name’s Jessica.” He thought she was trembling but could not be sure. It was possible—the fire was meager and her clothing not right for a night in the woods. But he had the sudden notion that it was not cold but the speaking of her name. As if entrusting something she doubted to trust. And he thought of the ancients who feared revealing their true names. Some power lost or perhaps an uncertain vulnerability revealed that the bearer might not know but the hearer certainly might.

Hewitt said, “Jessica, are you hungry?”

She turned then and looked at him without releasing her grip on herself. “I’m just fine,” she said.

“Well,” he said. “I’m not. I want some breakfast. What I was thinking was why don’t we tow your car down to the house so you don’t have to worry about it and we can fill it up with gas so you’re all set to go and then maybe you could sit down with me and eat some eggs and toast. How’s that sound?”

For a moment she looked like any other girl and was maybe a bit more than pretty and then the shade passed over her face again and she said, “That’s kind of you. But I think I truly need to get traveling on. I think I got all turned around. But you should be careful what you eat. They put whatever they want in just about anything.”

Hewitt was fascinated. “The eggs come from an old fart of a neighbor who most likely would agree with you. And the bread’s baked fresh every day in the village by a couple women I’ve known all my life. The loaf in the breadbox may be a little stale but it’d make good toast. Jessica? I went through an awful hard terrible time in my life some years back and much of it’s still with me but every now and then you have to trust somebody. Trust me if you want or not. But I’d hate to see you drive off hungry. The truth is I’d be happy to have some company for breakfast. Let’s get your car off this mountain and figure it out from there.”

“Do you have a cell phone?”

“I’m sorry I don’t. But there’s a rotary phone at the house. You’re welcome to use it, you don’t run up a bill the length of my arm.”

“Don’t you be getting a cell phone. I’m serious as death, you hear me?”

“I never gave a thought to one. Anyways, what I hear is they don’t work around here.”

“Is that right?”

He shrugged. “What I hear.” Hewitt was a little stunned with all this. He’d come up expecting a quick rescue and being sworn to silence by the children of someone he most likely knew. And her nipples were clear and dark through the thin shirt even as the morning was warming through the trees.

She said, “Can I ask two questions?”

“Only two?” He grinned.

She did not smile back. Just waited.

“All right. Shoot.”

She said, “I got rid of that gun a long time ago.”

He digested this and then said, “I meant go on and ask your questions.”

“What happened to you?”

Well fuckhead he’d opened that door. “It’s a bit of a long tale.”

She nodded as if this was enough. She said, “Why on earth do you try to hurt iron? Does that stop you from hurting something else?”

He wanted to ask if that was one question or two but simply said, “I’m a blacksmith. I think I told you I pound iron. After it’s heated the iron reacts in surprising ways. When it’s right, beauty comes from it.” And thought Shut up now.

She said, “But we all have iron inside us.”

“Yes,” he said. “We are stardust.” Thinking if she doesn’t want breakfast that’s probably a good thing.

She said, “Hewitt? Tell me again I can trust you.”

“You can trust me.”

She turned again and resumed her pacing between car and now dead fire and he stood waiting wanting to speak but with no idea what to say. She was so intent it seemed she was reading the ground. Messages for her to decipher. Or perhaps easily read. He could not say but knew both possibilities were congruent with this wild wild life. He’d done the same. More times than he could count. He’d stood in a snowstorm with bitter wind out of the northwest and screamed a name into the night. Or on his knees forehead striking the ground over and over wanting to push his head down into the very earth. Both small events of an endless mosaic that was not so much behind him as one he now rode as a silent steady river he’d bled into and merged with.

There came now the image of a jam jar dropped to explode on the bare plank pantry floor. So he did what he could. He fired up the tractor and backed it around, then got down on his knees to wrap the chain around the rear axle and snug it tight. She stopped pacing and was watching. He went the closest he’d been to her and said, “Because we’re going downhill you’ve got to keep the tension. Just keep pumping the brake and make sure you watch only out the back. It’s better to have the chain get tight and jerk you than have the car run into the back of the tractor. Do you understand?”

“I’m lost,” she said. “Not stupid.”

“Well, sit over breakfast with me and maybe we can figure out where you got turned around.”

Her mouth tightened, lips pressed. As if trying to learn if she was being led or not. Then she said, “I’ll watch you eat. But Hewitt “”

“What is it?”

“Stop staring at my boobs. Okay?”

“Why don’t you get in your car?” he said.

Reading Group Guide

Prepared by Susan Avery

1. In the first few pages of A Peculiar Grace Jeffrey Lent introduces us to his main character, Hewitt Pearce, and immediately talks of the possibility of “A second chance” (p. 1). What are all the things you learned about Hewitt almost immediately? Was your initial impression accurate? At what point in the story did you start to get an insight into the nature of Pearce’s second chance? Did that response change as the narrative progressed?

2. Readers will recognize immediately that Pearce is a loner. “‘Listen,’ he said, his palms stretched open before him as if this would prove him harmless. ‘Pretty much everything you’ve said to me I don’t understand. But you seem to be in a rough patch and I’m not talking about being out of gas’“ (p. 6). What makes him decide to help this unexpected visitor, Jessica, who is clearly a troubled and unstable young woman?

3. Lent tells the story of Hewitt Pearce by alternating his present life with flashbacks of his past. In one of these, Hewitt meets Emily Soren. “At first he couldn’t, absolutely in his deepest core could not accept the idea that this wild-hearted passion of impossible range would not in the end slice through and be recognized for the inevitability that it was; that the sheer velocity of this passion had initially set their mutual course blazing comets across the eons of the universe . . .” (p. 15). What attracts Hewitt to Emily? What are the elements that made the impetuous teenage obsession last for twenty years, though the actual relationship only lasted a year and a half? What facets of Pearce’s character are revealed? Does he express himself differently in the present?

4. Jeffrey Lent portrays Hewitt’s mother and father in detailed flash back. In his description of Thomas Pearce’s love for his first wife, Celeste, and their little daughter, Susan, we see evident similarities between Hewitt and his father, in the depth of their passions. What attracts Mary Margaret Duffy to Thomas, and why is she willing to take on a man with such a tragic history? Is he Mary Margaret Thomas’s second chance?

5. “But for Hewitt it was as if the love of his parents caused the black-eyed Susans to bloom or the crows and indigo buntings and bobolinks and drumming partridge back in the woods, the unfurling ferns beside and swarms of tadpoles within the small pools of the downhill brook—as if these things and all more came as a gift, a sideways glimpse of beauty and peace” (p. 101). There are many lovely passages such as this one, delineating the weather and the landscape and living things. What is Hewitt’s relationship with nature and his surroundings? Why is this important to the story?

6. Hewitt’s obsession with Emily Nussbaum (nee Soren) runs to subscribing to her town’s newspaper and he has thus followed the outline of her life over the years. What is the nature of the compulsion? Is it sentimental, maudlin, disturbing? When you discovered that her husband, Martin, had died in a car crash were you surprised by Hewitt’s reaction? His old friend Walter Boynton lends him his Thunderbird and encourages him to pay Emily a visit. Hewitt has few friends, why do he and Walter get along? Do they have things in common? Discuss all the ways that Walter is a friend to Hewitt.

7. When Hewitt confronts the widowed Emily he says “You’ve never left me, Emily. I went truly crazy for several years. I drank so much that for no reason but plain old bald-ass luck I should be dead. Then it only became a smaller insanity I could manage . . . I’m a middle-aged man who knows better but still believe you’re my twin, my missing half.” (p. 173). Do you agree with this declaration? Do you think Emily ever shared these feelings?

8. Upon Hewitt’s return from his trip to New York in Walter’s Thunderbird there is the following quick exchange. “Quick trip.” “Yup.” “A dead fire?” (p. 190). This is, of course, very apt. Fire is an important element in the entire book; the fire that destroyed Thomas Pearce’s first family; the fire of Hewitt Pearce’s forge that shapes the iron of his creations; even the wood fire that he cooks with and prefers to propane. What are the psychological fires burning in Hewitt? How does he attempt to cool them? Does he ever succeed?

9. Hewitt learned blacksmithing during two summers when he was still in high school. He was taught by Timothy Farrell, who had a profound effect on him. Hewitt visits Farrell’s grave on his road trip to New York. “If it was a last lesson from Timothy it was a good one. When the voice calls, you have to go. When you go, expect nothing. Anything else is grace” (p. 139). How does what Hewitt learned from Timothy affect him in both his vocation and his life?

10. “Most smiths were content with three coats, perhaps for a fixture like this that would be outside, four. Hewitt worked with a minimum of six and these gates would likely get eight. The initial difference in appearance between three coats and eight would not be apparent to near anyone” (p. 198). Hewitt has only done one job on spec, an iron stair railing, and he refuses to take pictures of his work to show to clients. Why are his business practices so quirky? Why is he so patient, painstaking, and precise in his work?

11. In the second summer that Hewitt spent in Bluffport working with Timothy Farrell, he and Emily lived in a commune called the Ark. It was a youthful summer of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Do you think, seen through the prism of this setting, Hewitt had illusions about Emily? What does he learn about her later that he should have known? Does he see her differently? Is she different?

12. “Hewitt had never really been able to comprehend the notion of irony. Sarcasm, yes. The upheaval of circumstance also. But irony. Once accepted then all life was ironic. And he doubted that. Tremendously. Still, as he crept soundless as could be into his own house and lifted the bottle from the pantry and then back outside, he suspected the ironic. Stealing into and out of his own house” (p. 178). In what ways does missing the ironic have an effect on Hewitt’s reactions?

13. “She turned to face him. She was pale, blanched, her upper lip trembling but her eyes steady as the frozen wetlands around them.” (p. 187) Were you surprised at Emily’s reaction to pregnancy or at the manner in which she broke the news of her abortion to Hewitt?

14. “Amber was quiet a time. Then said, ‘It’s funny but I always sort of doubted she was real. I mean, I knew you’d met this girl when you were both pretty much kids. But I always wondered if you were using her as a way to give yourself some distance from other women.’” (p. 215). Why does Hewitt confide in Amber Potwin? Is she accurate in her analysis of him?

15. Hewitt is living in the house that his artist father, Thomas, lived in with Mary Margaret, his mother. He is the keeper of his father’s artistic legacy. Why is this house important? What is the significance of the red room? Why does he keep it all to himself?

16. “Hewitt picked up the photograph of the young family and drained his eyes down upon his father. And of a sudden was weeping for the young man caught in that moment not knowing what faced him but somehow certain of his destiny, and for the man who survived all that and dug deeply within and went on. And wept for the burden of sorrow his father had chosen to hold—such magnificent sacrifice—so his second round of marriage and children might be free of his guilt, or fear of failure or dishonor. And Hewitt wondered then, for the first time, how his father had really felt about his success.” (p. 241). Once Jessica reveals who and what she is to Hewitt, and shows him the photographs that he has never seen, a floodgate is opened. In which direction is the flood flowing? Is it going out as a sort of catharsis or is it flowing in as a cleansing? Is there something of both?

17. What is the tie between Jessica and Hewitt that had already been developing before the revelation? Hewitt had no notion about Jessica except what he learned from her, and from a brief phone conversation with her father. There is actually something very strong between them from the beginning. Jessica has purposefully sought him out, but Hewitt has feelings for her right away. What about Jessica’s nature and/or history can he relate to? Is it conscious or unconscious?

18. What is meaningful about the killing of Emmett Kirby? How does it affect Hewitt? What is significant about Jessica adopting two of the old man’s cats? Why later, does the one cat’s accidental death have such an emotional impact on her? How does this incident make Hewitt see more clearly?

19. When Hewitt’s mother, older sister, Beth, and niece, Meredith, unexpectedly come to visit, old family patterns and history are uncovered. What are some of the important discoveries about the Pearce family? Why are many things still unresolved between Hewitt and his sister and mother?

20. “By the time he came to me he’d buried all that as far inside as he could. It was a worry, a great fret to me for a time, wondering how he divided himself between past and present” (p. 307). When Mary Margaret learns about Jessica, what concerns from the past are reignited? Had she ever been able to really cast aside what went before and her pain?

21. On the day that Hewitt goes about finding the two stones for the hitching posts he is creating, he comes close to getting crushed by his own tractor. “He moved away fifteen feet or maybe more and sat down on the ground. Looking at the whole thing. His first thought was he was well and fucked. His second was but for a handy tree he could right now, this very moment, be crushed by his own tractor. Dead. Very nearly the stupid accident.” (p. 362). Why does it seem appropriate for there to be danger and adventure in acquiring the stones?

22. “Well, I’m finishing up a pair of hitching posts. Real ones. I mean for real horses, not something to stick in a yard. And I had fun with the design. It was a bit of a challenge. Well, something more than that—there was a bunch of personal horseshit symbolism wrapped up in the whole thing. It felt good.” (p. 384). What do you think Hewitt means about symbolism? Do the stones represent Hewitt and Emily or perhaps Hewitt and Jessica? What or who else comes to mind?

23. Hewitt is a man who knows how to bend iron to his will, but he is as stubborn and immovable as a heavy stone. Once he moves the stones, and it almost kills him, what does he finally learn about himself and his past?

24. Timothy Farrell had said, “Take a chain now. Which link is the strongest?” (p. 57). After all does Hewitt figure this riddle out? Timothy Farrell said, “It’s a good life.” (p. 59). After all, how does Hewitt Pearce know this is true?

25. Both Hewitt and his father utilize the transformative power of creating works of art to gain a greater understanding of their own personal turmoil and demons. The final product, the work itself, may obscure the range of emotional responses to life that go into the creation. Do you think this is generally true of most art? Is that obscurity intentional or not? How is one person’s experience in creating art reflected for the viewers?

26. A volume of poetry (The Great Fires, by Jack Gilbert) plays a central role in the relationship between Hewitt and Jessica. Is this merely a shared reading pleasure or does it speak of larger issues for both? If so, what might those issues be?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Clearcut by Nina Shengold; Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje; The Maytrees by Annie Dillard; The Fall of the Year by Howard Frank Mosher; A Widow for One Year by John Irvng; Kinflicks by Lisa Alther; The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy; Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller; The Great Fires (poetry) by Jack Gilbert; This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann; A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy; Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson