Lost Nationby Jeffrey Lent
“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.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
From the best-selling author Jeffrey Lent, Lost Nation is a tour de force novel. Impelled by sensuous prose and atmospheric storytelling, Lost Nation delves beneath the bright, promising veneer of early-nineteenth-century New England to unveil a startling parable of individualism and nationhood.
The novel opens with a man known as Blood, guiding an oxcart of rum toward the wild country of New Hampshire, an ungoverned territory called the Indian Stream–a land where the luckless or outlawed have made a fresh start. Blood is a man of contradictions, of learning and wisdom, but also a man with a secret past that has scorched his soul. He sets forth to establish himself as a trader, hauling with him Sally, a sixteen-year-old girl won from the madam of a brothel over a game of cards. Their arrival in the Indian Stream triggers an escalating series of clashes that serves to sever the master/servant bond between them, and offers both a second chance with life. But as the conflicts within the community spill over and attract the attention of outside authorities, Blood becomes a target to those seeking easy blame for their troubles. As plots unravel and violence escalates, two young men of uncertain identity appear, and Blood is forced to confront dreaded apparitions of his past, while Sally is offered a final escape.
Lost Nation is a vivid tale of unexpected strengths, terrible and sad misconceptions, and the yearning toward civil society in a landscape raw and with little pity for human strivings. In prose both lucid and seductive, it carries us deeply into human and natural conditions of extreme desolation and harrowing hardship, but also the relentless beat of hope and, finally, the redeeming capacity of love.
“Lost Nation is a visceral book. Its scenes and characters are full of sweat, smell, rot, and contradiction. . . . It is rugged, carefully plotted, and thoughtfully constructed, offering a glimpse of a place and time most contemporary novelists simply can’t take us to. . . . A powerful and potentially timeless book.” –The Baltimore Sun
“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.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“This is a compelling, at times chilling, achievement.” –People
“Lent’s formidable second novel is the kind of book that swallows its readers.” –The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Lent renders his story in a spectacular fury of language that cracks and flashes with desperate insight into the nature of remorse and redemption. There are battles captured here with such raw clarity that you expect to find gunpowder stains on your hands when you put the book down. But the more stunning conflicts in this new masterpiece take place in a heart divided against itself.” –Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
“A novel of brutal originality . . . [Lent] is a writer of such breathtaking talent and honesty that one feels compelled to group him with the greats of American literature.” –Bookpage
“Lent writes muscular prose and builds complex characters who move through his plot in ways that deftly demonstrate their strengths and weaknesses.” –Georgia Jones-Davis, The Washington Post
“A powerfully written novel . . . that explores a human condition as twisted and hidden as the tangled Northern wilderness.” –Michael Kenney, Boston Globe
“This remarkable tragedy sets the bar pretentiously high, but then somehow surpasses it. . . . There are battles captured here with such raw clarity that you expect to find gunpowder stains on your hands when you put the book down. But the more stunning conflicts in this new masterpiece take place in a heart divided against itself.” –Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
“An atmospheric story that’s both disturbing and entertaining.” –Anne Stephenson, The Chicago Sun-Times
“Lost Nation is a unique novel about borders, about memory, about imagination, about the age-old dream of becoming a better man by moving to a different place. Jeffrey Lent’s genius is that he recognizes that wherever we are now is wherever we have been, that we will always in some place be both rooted and uprooted. Beautifully written, intricately paced, dark, fierce, and often funny, Lost Nation is part love story, part parable, and part east-coast western. With his second novel Lent has already created his own disputed territory in American literature.” –Colum McCann
“My real problem with Jeffrey Lent’s Lost Nation is figuring out whether it is a masterpiece or simply an American classic. This is an age of obtuse hyperbole but I don’t recall a novel more worthy of the traditional nine bows, a novel that more ruthlessly examines the nearly ancient roots of what we are today.” –Jim Harrison
“[A] grand, dramatic novel. . . . An epic story of individual redemption and the innocence lost as a civilization strives to define itself.” –Sarah Gianelli, Portland Oregonian
“[Lent’s] talent has staying power. His carefully crafted. . . prose is like a rutted country road carving out its own literary territory.” –Martin Northway, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“The power of Lost Nation lies in the author’s unique use of language, in both the written and the spoken patois of early 19th century New England.” –William Dieter, Rocky Mountain News
“An engrossing and spirited tale of early American backwoods resilience.” –R.C. Scott, Washington Times
“Lent has not set out to write merely a ripping yarn or a 19th-century potboiler. His aim is much higher and broader: he wants to write an epic morality tale–more Dostoevsky than [James Fenimore] Cooper. . . . This is grand, gritty, gory writing which feels like it’s arm-wrestling the words into place. . . . Lost Nation is literature for our own floundering, dissatisfied country.” –David Abrams, January Magazine
“A provocative work of fiction that will endure as long as the mighty Connecticut River twists its way to the sea. . . . A majestic account of individualism and nationhood. . . . With authentic realism. . . . Tempered by images of warmth and pure poetry. . . . As rich in character and plot, as the black dirt soil along the lakes of the North County.” –Marvin Minkler, The North Star Monthly
“An atmospheric story that’s both disturbing and entertaining.” –Poughkeepsie Journal
“A tragic, sometimes terrifying and even sentimental story. . . . Lent writes with incredibly sensuous pose, bringing much of the backwood country to life. . . . Lent also describes the often violent action with stunning detail.” –Gregg Mayer, Jackson Clarion-Ledger
“Lent has maintained this purpose from start to finish, and has given readers something they will both contemplate and enjoy. Good Reading.” –Glen Young, Petoskey News-Review
“Lent is unflinching in his portrayal of violence and betrayal. . . . The greatest beauty of Lent’s book, after the fabulous writing, is the way he manages to bring humanity to the surface in the face of roiling chaos. . . . Not a book you’ll read and forget.” –Rae Francoeur, Salem News
“Magnificent. . . . Lent writes as well about men and women in a natural setting as any American novelist since William Faulkner. . . . He has created the most fully human characters I’ve encountered in recent fiction.” –Howard Frank Mosher, Northern Woodlands
“A suggestive allegory of a fledgling civilization’s loss of innocence and helpless pursuit of self-destructive folly.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A rousing tale that will surely please the readers of [Lent’s] first, bestselling novel, In the Fall.” –Publishers Weekly
“Lent’s first novel, In the Fall, was a critically acclaimed best seller prompting comparisons to the likes of Faulkner, McCarthy, and Frost. His second, about a ‘man who allowed torment to eat all but the final hard stone of his soul,” proves that his first success was no fluke. . . . A dark and bloody tale about the power of guilt, the tragedy of misapprehension, and the will to survive, it offers a powerful yet compassionate exploration into the human condition.” –Library Journal (starred review)
“From the opening words, I was riveted by the heart-piercing dialogue, the sparseness of the setting, and the assault of the characters. I loved every second of this book! (And Lent’s first one, In The Fall, as well.) I’m hooked, and will put this book into the hands of all of my customers.” –Annie Kyrkostas, Book Mark Café, Oyster Bay, NY, Book Sense quote
Christian Science Monitor–Best Books 2002
Book Sense–76 Selection
The Year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred & Thirty-Eight
They went on. The man Blood in hobnailed boots and rotting leather breeches and a stinking linen blouse, lank and greasegrimed hair tied at his nape with a thin leather binding cut from a cowhide, goad in hand, 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 fancy skirt and bodice in a tight roll jammed down in the back of the cart atop her button-hook boots furred now with green slime, the girl’s hair no cleaner than Blood’s but untied and tangled, redblonde, 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 huge dog trotting on the off side, directly opposite Blood.
The cart was loaded with twin hogsheads of black Barbados rum, smaller casks of powder sealed against moisture with beeswax, pigs of lead, axeheads, a small brass-strapped eight-pound swivel gun without carriage and bolts of plum and violet cloth–this last acquired through whimsy; the bolts were stolen and unwanted and so pressed upon Blood by their most recent possessor and Blood, who knew no thing was free, could not resist the frivolous drygoods. Thinking they might even prove useful in some as yet unseen way. Blood believed there was no happenstance, that all things served a purpose if a man only knew how to look for it. Otherwise, there was nothing but careful forethought in the contents of the cart, right down to the last ounce-weight of pigged lead to powder. So he added papers of pins and ones of needles. And a sack of pewter thimbles. Blood made no mistakes. He’d long since used up his share.
Thus he chose to go up the east side of the mountains instead of following the easier water route of the Connecticut River to the west. Once north of Fryeburg and the Conway intervale there were few people and fewer settlements, and those that were, were less inclined to interfere with questions of any nature. They had paused some days outside of Conway, camping in the woods, not availing themselves of the tavern in the village but allowing word of their presence to seep around the rough bitter populace; here he sold her service to what few men had hard coin which were not many and he was not interested in barter, not yet wanting to accumulate a thing beyond what he already had. Disgusted at the paucity of the place he pushed on, knowing the worst lay ahead. That fact alone delighted him, now faced with the worst, he had the opportunity to wrest himself from it. There was no other possibility. His delight was grim.
For some weeks they had outraced spring even at ox pace but the weather turned and softened as they halted in Conway and so they traveled then with less speed and comfort even as they climbed into the mountains toward the notch and the land beyond, their destination that vast lost land north of the mountains that might have been American or Canadian but of which no men knew or if they did none it seemed cared. The corduroy road, ill-made anyway now began to fall apart
and disappear into the frost-ooze, the dank black mud that sucked at the cart wheels so they screeched in their hubs and there was often no way to know what was road and what bog or beaver marsh or simply muddy meadow surrounded by long-dead drowned trees. Their tree-corpses silver and white in the spring light; shorn of their smaller limbs they seemed to Blood to be giants of longlost men, struck mute and helpless where they mired. And then they would pass out of the muck and back into spruce and hemlock forest or hardwood and the road would be there; often not more than a crushed track pressed through the woods lining. And where the mud had not yet broken through the frost there were boulderbacks with faint scars, the sign of some other, earlier, passage. Reassuring to other men perhaps but for Blood nothing but reminder for vigilance.
And everywhere, over everything, as if boiled out of the mud by the sun, the swarms of gnats and blackflies, no-see-ums, clouds in the open bogs like silver glistening screens, lit by the sun, prismatic. Over all open skin and in ears and nostrils and eyes and mouth. As if the land was not enough but the air must join to fight against their traveling. Blood cut a square of cloth from one of the bolts and folded it into a triangle and tied it over his face, just below his eyes. He offered nothing to the girl.
He had purchased her from a gin-sot bawd in Portland in the small hours of a cold early April night, raining there in Maine, the cobbles wet and slick from offal and garbage, rats rampant off the harbor ships, the alleys littered with glass shards that glistened when chance lamplight struck against them. The rain windblown, salt laden, the shifting and supplications rising off the wharf-fettered ships long groans in the night. This Anna far gone with gin hallucination, having lost her night’s earnings to him. Blood sat across from her with his toddy of rum, the cards greasy and blunt edged and he chose his moment well, interrupting her keening over her misfortune and offering the eagles back for the girl over one more hand. Anna gathered the cards and spilled them and shuffled them and spilled them again and dealt them out, Blood taking his time studying his own as if unsure of his game and the woman suddenly animate, swift and avaricious, her eyes pouched and ruined in red glare, watching while Blood drew and studied and drew again, all the while Anna holding her first draw and Blood called and turned out a straight and the girl and coin were his. By the time they’d roused the sleeping girl Anna was sobbing, bereft, breathless and beseeching. The girl was her daughter. The girl, dressed, stood mute before the spectacle of her mother and the silent ruffian man. As if this had someway already happened to her. Anna was pleading.
Blood said, “Have gratitude woman. A girl is naught but trouble for a mother. She’ll fare as well with me as here with you.”
Thinking Anna had already paid twice for the girl, the once unknowingly begetting the child and again now, losing all she had been willing to stake. He led the girl out by the hand and she walked yet silent beside him, taking no leave of her mother. They went through the dead-dawn streets to the stable where his cart was already laden and where by lantern light he cut the tether for the girl and goaded up the oxen from the dirty litter and yoked them and spoke to the big mastiff/wolfhound and together the five of them went out through the port onto the turnpike road inland, away from the coast, toward the small towns and the mountains beyond. Still raining and the drizzle held back the dawn so they were well out into the countryside by the time some indeterminate shadowed light filmed over them and the rain turned to sleet and the caulked shoes of the oxen chipped against the hard road, the pods of urine-stained ice and packed bleak snow mired in frozen mud. So the first day passed and they did not speak. Blood had nothing to say to the girl and she was frightened by her prospects or of him. Perhaps she even was dumb–either way it did not matter to him.
At night they camped in a riverside glen of elms away from the road and fed on cold boiled bacon and ship-biscuit crackers and made their bed under the cart, the cowhide serving as a groundsheet and damp wool blankets over them and the cold bore down upon them and the girl pressed up against him.
“They call me Sally,” she said. He could smell and feel her breath, sour after the long day. “I’ll work to please you.”
He pushed her away from him. ‘sleep then,” he commanded.
They traveled through the bleak time when the winter has exhausted itself but still holds the land for near three weeks when they stopped at Conway and he first sold her out to whomever had the coin and was willing to lie with her beneath the cart. Just some feet away in the woods Blood kept a fire going and drank black tea. After the last night of it there, when they were going ahead into the first warm day and the road was softening and Blood’s head was lifted to study the mountains still well west and north of them but inevitable as a fist of god, she spoke up, calling from where she walked barefoot leashed to the back of the cart.
“That last one, he used me hard. Where he hadn’t ought.”
He did not look back although the great beast of a dog paused and cocked its head back at her, one foot arrested up before it turned forward again. After a time Blood said, ‘some men will.” Still not looking back.
The next day he took her skirt and bodice from her and wrapped them in her woolen shawl and set them along with her boots down into a crevice of the cart and left her in her linen shift and he did not need to tell her that it was to save them. It was warm enough with the rough walking to keep her well. But in the muck and mire of the road her feet turned softer even as they tried to blister and toughen and were stabbed through with the spikes of dead branches buried in the road and bruised on hidden stones so that by the end of the first day they were swollen and raw, punctured gruesome things. After she washed them clean in a snowmelt rill he knelt and portioned her a dab of axle grease from the pot suspended under the cart, which she worked into her feet. And each evening he allowed this. She did not know if this was kindness or prudence on his part and only wished that he’d allow her to re-dress her feet also before the start of each day but he did not offer and she did not ask. So far, he had not touched her and she knew enough to know this meant that if he should it would not be a manner she would want or welcome and so intended to keep it that way.
Anyway it was just her feet and the mud wouldn’t last forever or the road either. Although she did not allow herself to think about where the end of the road might be. She still bled when she shat. But that would pass and her feet would toughen. The days warmed more although the nights stayed cool. She did not know if they were less cold or if she was getting used to it. They began to climb into the mountains and afternoons she sweated through her shift; then came the blackflies and midges and she ceased her worries over their destination and more than once found herself thinking kindly of Portland until she caught herself, knowing that if nothing else Blood represented prospects as yet unknown, whereas what lay behind her was all too clearly limned. She believed she could endure anything if there was hope for change and she knew that walking with this brooding quick-paced broadbacked man was the best hope for change that had come her way. If pressed she would not have been able to say what exactly she hoped for. But each step forward was one toward that possible unclear clinging thread. Blackflies after all just blackflies and while she could see how a man might lose his mind attempting to get away from them she knew it was a lesser man than Blood was, or herself for that matter. She had no education but a quick mind and saw already that she had learned something from Blood. She was fifteen years old as best she knew.
They passed through a settlement called Errol, a plankbuilt tavern and store and rough log houses. They did not pause there but Sally watched as a woman in clothing as crude as her own came to a raw-timbered door and studied her with open disdain and she thought Women is the same everywhere if they don’t know better. They crossed over the Androscoggin River by rude ferry and then for some miles had decent road, the corduroy of logs with bark yet on them firm atop the ground and that afternoon made good time toward the cleft of mountains before them. At dusk Blood clubbed a partridge that stood motionless studying the approaching apparition as if for the bird such strangeness could only be curious and not danger. It was the first fresh meat since he’d bought lean tough pork in Conway, although each day the dog would disappear into the woods and return hours later with blood on his muzzle and the sweet reek of raw meat about him, a smell that overwhelmed her, filled her mouth with saliva that she swallowed over and over as if to find succor there. And now this partridge. When the dusk was all gone to dark but for pale green light off within the trees they made camp and Blood threw the bird for her to pluck while he gathered wood, dead branches broken off the lower reaches of spruce and tamarack, and for the first time made a fire of consequence and roasted the bird. As if he’d passed an invisible line in his mind, a point where some sense of safety gained upon him. Not quite ease but something she could not name. Anyway, the fire was pleasure enough without parsing Blood. Whatever it was she knew it was more than the simple river crossing of the noontime.
The ship-biscuit crackers were gone but there was a sack of wormy meal that she mixed with water and patted into flat cakes to roast on stones turned against the fire. While above the bird dripped and spat grease and blackened on the thick ramrod spit from his rifle. The smell unbearable.
When they finally ate she burned the roof of her mouth on the first hank of breast torn from her half of the bird. Blood had split the carcass evenly and she considered if this was kindness or if he was simply maintaining his investment. For the moment she was happy to be maintained. The corncakes were dry and hard but also hot and she sat on the ground with her legs curled under her to one side and felt for the first time as if, things turned right, she might sometime prosper.
They woke some time of the night to horrific ascending unending screams seemingly rods away in the woods surround. The fire burned down to nothing, a scant mask of color over heaped dead coals. The oxen stamping, trodden beasts chained in place, low moans from them as if they scented their own death. The dog paced the dim rim of light, its hair hackled in a sharp quilled ridge. Blood spoke a low command to the dog, locking it in place even as the girl rolled over and grappled Blood, against and then over him, pressed tight, her hands locked in hard knots that grasped through his linen blouse to clutch the curls of his chest hair and wrapped both her legs in a hard cramp around one of his, it feeling to Blood like her legs encircled his times beyond counting. He was pinned, constrained, snared all ways. Her teeth grazed his neck, terror all through her, a possession absolute, and through her pants of fear her voice choked, begging to be saved.
“It’s a cat, girl.” His hands up pushing against her shoulders’ writhe. “A catamount is all.”
“It’s after us idn’t it? It smells us idn’t that right?”
“It’s not after nothing. They scream like that.”
“No. It’s coming. Screaming to scare us witless is what it’s doing.”
He paused. He’d heard the screams before and always took them to be because the cats could–they could curdle the night and freeze up all living creatures–but he’d never considered it might be for hunting. It was the first rule–the notion of not alerting your prey in any way. But for a moment he reflected on the child logic laid before him. And Sally took that moment to harden her hold of him and his hands were ineffectual against her and so they grappled and he did not hear the cat cry again. But could suddenly smell himself reflected against the girl and could smell her as well, no fresher than himself but still the deep emission of an other, and could taste also the girl of her, the woman, the bitter salt of her skin and the roasted meat breath and the other, the smell of the ocean sea she was born beside. And then got his free leg up, his knee raised as he pulled his heel up for purchase against the ground and he threw her up and not off him for that was not possible and no longer wanted but over where he followed down on top of her and the breath went out of her as her back struck the earth hard and he raised himself and tore up her shift and unbuttoned his flies and sank back against her and he jerked into her but also into the night, into the very earth itself, and the small sounds that came from her were not her child’s voice but some other voice altogether as she locked around him and he pressed harder against her, harder to try and drive away the sound of that voice, to drive it out of her. And could do that no more than he could drive it from his own brain. As she spoke, her voice stretched and drawn, that one word Oh Oh Oh over and over and it might have been, surely was, No No No and he would never know how she knew, how it came from her but it burst through him and ran heat through his spine and the tendons of his legs and arms and a scree of chill over him and he clenched his eyes shut and finished in her, already again just the girl Sally. Already back exactly where he was. By a cold dead fire on a cold spring night in the deep north woods, the mountains with names he did not know, the place he was aiming for and did not know either; all this again before him. He lifted himself from her and stepped away, pulling up his breeches as he went.
He went out into the dark and stood there. The dog came up and sniffed and marked a tree and Blood went around to the oxen and tugged the ring in each nose to settle them and he saw there was faint light in the east and turned back to see the girl up, scraping open the fire with a stick and then feeding wood onto the flaring coals. Her shift was on the ground where they had joined and when she bent over the fire her small breasts stayed high and tight against the bones of her ribcage shown in the firelight as bars of orange and black. Her hair down loose shrouding her face, the slight swell of her hips where she squatted.
Blood’s groan inaudible to her.
* * *
Midmorning she walked up beside him, a short dangle of the tether displayed from her wrist, the end gnawed and wet. They were climbing into the notch now and the sliced sides of the mountains overshadowed even the thin wedge of sky, far up the slopes bare of trees where sunlight struck off white quartz. The brook alongside the road was overflowing, snowmelt water jammed in the narrow confines of boulder and ledge. The brook was all they could hear, that and the ever-anguishing creak of the cart.
‘see,” she said, her wrist held up for inspection. “There idn’t no need to tie me like a beast. I’m not going nowhere you ain’t anyhow.”
He called up the team and the oxen stood blowing, heads dragged earthward. He sighed and took up her hand and studied the strap still around her wrist; then he released her and unrolled the cowhide from the cart and cut a new, longer strip while she stood watching him. He made a loop in one end of the thong and caught up both of her hands and bound them together fast so the leather cut into her skin and tied her again to the rear of the cart. He paused a moment and then took up his knife once more and cut off the remnant of the first strap and pitched it into the shadbush growing between the road and the brook and walked back past the cart and took up the goad leaned against the cart wheel and spoke up the oxen and the mean conveyance lurched and ground forward again.
“Treat me how you will,” she sang out. “I’ll not forget a bit of it.”
“I’d not think so,” he called back without turning or breaking stride.
Late afternoon found them stalled three hundred yards from the constricted top of the notch, the road here a jumble of boulders and mud-slick gravel, the cart listing off to one side, one wheel mired, the other up on a boulder. The oxen strained to hold the angled rig in place; Blood had stacked stones behind the lifted wheel to help. Now he sat off to one side in a scanty stand of scraggly spruce. Ravens barked from the ridgeline out of sight. The sun was gone although the light streamed high above them. The freed girl hunched on a nearby stone, her arms wrapped around her chest. There was a whetted wind. The axle was broken.
There was a shadow of bruise on her face where he’d slapped her when the catastrophe first occurred and she had turned striving to hide her laughter–a glee he thought edged with excitement, as if immediately she knew the pendulum had swung ever so little toward her in balance. Now she sat, her face vacant, waiting.
Blood held his head with his hands. He was tired and his head hurt. None of the remedies that occurred appealed. He knew in all likelihood in the open land beyond the head of the notch there would be a farm, perhaps more. Perhaps a forge but even if not, probably someone who could help mend the axle, fashion some sort of replacement, whatever was needed to limp onward to wherever a permanent repair could be made. Although uncertainties they struck him as being not unreasonable. The problem, most simply, was how to get here to there.
Even with his head held he knew she was watching him, knew also that if he did not speak she soon would. And silently pleaded for her own silence. He did not feel up to her.
“It’s a pickle.” Her voice almost gay, only scarcely guarded.
He said nothing, did not lift his head.
“I don’t know what’s more trouble, the load or me. But I know this: Even I wasn’t here that load would set right where it is, regardless of what you was to do. I don’t see how you could just leave it, go off for help. Someone might come along. Of course, there’s that–someone might come along, be willing to help we waited long enough.”
He looked at her now but remained silent.
“How long,” she asked, “you think before that might happen?”
After a time he spoke. Slowly. “The way it works, it’d be just a minute I was to leave it here and go after help. But then, we was to set here, we’d likely eat up both the beeves before we saw a single living soul.”
She nodded. He wondered if she really understood this, the full implications of this formula and how it applied to their peculiar circumstance. Then recalled her background and guessed likely she did. She said, “What do you figure to do?”
“I don’t like any of it.”
She nodded again. “One of us has to stay and one go on for help. That’s all there is to it. Question is, which one’s the better guard?”
“You got that calculated.”
She shrugged. “I’m tougher”n dried cod. You was to leave the dog, if he’d stay, and leave me your rifle, I’d do just fine unless it was a passel of em and then likely it wouldn’t matter twas you or me here.”
“You could as easy see me top the ridge and strike out back the way we come. I got no idea how far it’d be to find repair even of the roughest kind.”
“But if I was the one to go after help you’d have no idea when to expect me back. You’d just be setting here. Either way you got to trust me.”
‘mind your tongue girl.”
“Listen,” she said. “I’ll whore for you cause I got no choice in it. But it seems to me, we was to work together just the least bit it might not be such a bad thing. You was to trust me some I’d trust you to watch out for me. That’s the plain truth.”
“You say that now, cold and brokedown. But you’d skedaddle first occasion you thought might be just a smidgen better.”
She studied him, raking fingers through her hair, tugging at knots and tangles, freeing bits of twig and trash. She said, “Whoever you are, you’re a fearsome man. And wherever you come from I doubt I even want to know about. But I got no choice but to trust you. And I’ll tell you this too–I might be off here in the woods set to whore for you when the chance comes but it’s still better than what I’d be up to every day back to Portland. At least this is–”
“What,” he asked. “What do you call this?”
“Well,” she said. “It’s interesting, is what it is.”
“Christ girl,” he said. “Look at you. Half naked, feet all cut up and swelled all over with the fuckin bugs and bout starved to death and you set there and tell me it’s interesting.”
She stood and stretched her arms up high over her head and he turned his eyes from her and she came and leaned her hands on her knees and brought her face close to his and said, “It takes a rough patch to get you talking, don’t it?”
He stood off the stone and stepped around her and bent once more to survey the busted axle. She squatted down beside him to look also. When he glanced to her, she said, “It don’t change much, looking at it. Does it now?”
He pushed up, his hands on his knees. She stayed where she was, her face tilted toward him. He said, “All right then. Get your clothes on, your skirt and such.”
She stood. “What for?”
He was too tired to tell her to just do it because he said to. He said, ‘so, if someone does come along, you look respectable.”
She stood then too. Looked at him and nodded. Then said, “Is there a name to call you?”
“I mean one I can get off my tongue.”
“Get dressed.” He turned from her. “Blood’s all the name anyone needs of me.”
He worked while she knelt at the brook and washed herself. He packed more rocks around and under the cart and levered it up with a stout pole and wedged more rocks to hold it in place. He used the pole as a mallet to remove the cotters from the wheels and pulled them from the axle and then, lying on his back under the cart cursing, worked free the axle. It was near dark, the long spring twilight. He unhitched the oxen and chained one to a tree and strapped the axle across the back of the other. Then stopped and built a fire and hauled in loads of wood so there was a great pile alongside the cart and last he gave her the rifle and told her to just hold it up steady and aim at whomever she might need to and let the dog do the rest. He did not need to tell her the gun was useless after the one charge it held. The dog was called Luther. Blood bent, grunted and lifted it in his arms and placed it atop one of the rum hogsheads and commanded it to stay. He had no idea how long he’d be gone. He took only a single piece of corncake and a moldy chunk of bacon, hoping his scanty rations would reassure her.
He left as the light went purple, not looking back at where she sat up on the other hogshead in her skirt and bodice and shawl, the rifle gripped before her like a talisman. Her feet dangled bare, too swollen to fit into her shoes. The fire burned sufficient beside the cart, the stack of wood high enough so that for the time being at least she could merely lean to feed it. He yupped the laden ox and they went up toward the last feeble light at the crotch of the mountains just above them. By the time he could see out onto the open vastness beyond he could no longer see the cart or her. Just a pale flicker high up where the firelight struck against the bare quartz rock or the last rotten embedment of ice.
* * *
There was a light far out ahead in the vast black bowl of broad long valley surrounded by the mountaintops now low hills rearing also black against the sky. But what he paid first attention to were the stars coruscating overhead, cut off midway to the horizon by a bank of rolled cloud coming from the north-northwest down upon where he stood. The wind that felt so keen down below had lost some bite so he could not say if he faced rain or snow but either way he and the girl were in for it and he hoped they were both equal to whatever came. With this study he placed himself in the otherwise measureless landscape ahead. He rested a hand on the dingy ox-shoulder beside him and yupped it again and moved forward into the night, onward toward the light. Which was soon lost from sight as they descended the valley and into the growth of hardwood and spruce and tamarack forest which surrounded them. The road underfoot firm with frost and back in the woods the snowpack, a luminescent shadow of the night itself. This land stalled in winter.
He told himself it was April and whatever the weather it would change soon. Even a heavy snow would linger but a handful of days. The girl would be all right. The important thing was the glimpsed light. It would’ve been so natural for it not to have been there at all. He could not predict this land. It was this fact, most simply, that had brought him here.
She had dragged the cowhide up onto the hogshead and had the luxury of both blankets and so was sleeping curled tight to fit the round
space but more comfortably than she had since the man took her from Maine. This after supping on the rich hot black tea that he reserved for himself and great rinds of bacon that she could not slice but washed the worst of the mold in the bitter brook water before roasting so the fat spit and burned her face and what mold was left was burned clear and she ate as much for once as she wanted. Sharing the hide-rind with the dog who sat atop its hogshead watching her as if recording her transgressions with some silent stamp. Still, the dog was happy to eat the offered food. All the time with the wind funneled piercing down through the cleft above. But the fire was high and warm and there were no blackflies and she went to sleep with her belly stretched and her mind slowed and easy. So when the enormous hound woke her with his roaring she was blear-eyed and thick-headed.
She thought at first it was the snow the dog sounded, great platelets the size of saucers in a drafty sweep down through the wavering ovoid of firelight, and was scrambling up to her knees and holding the rifle tight as she reached one hand to try and calm Luther when she saw the wolves. Three of them. She had never seen one before but there was no mistake, the nightbeasts shadowed gray against the black, the yellow rimfire eyes turned hot sideways toward her as they moved, pacing back and forth just at the edge of light, the three forms weaving past one another the way water braids through a cat-tail stand. The lone ox was bellowing now also, heaving its weight against the side of the cart as if it might join the dog and girl atop the load, the cart rocking against its terror.
The wolves still had thick winter pelts and against the new-fallen snow and the light of the burned-down fire they appeared to float. They were silent, making a half circle back and forth where the cart was lodged against the steep cliffside of the road, leaping dainty over the brook to keep as close to the cart as they could or would. The ox was down on that open side of the cart and the wolves would make slight feint as they approached and fall back again as they passed, the dog Luther stretched high and quivering on his stoop, howling, extended as far out as he could over the bulging fearful ox, his four legs bunched together, feet jammed against the cask-rim, his head lowered so that he bayed his awful roar down the side of the stricken ox and the sound flowed out toward the wolves.
Sally had her feet pulled under her and her shawl over the flintlock of the rifle although she guessed the cap was already wet from the snow but did not know enough to know what to do about it. Her hands wet and there seemed no way to check it. With her other hand she reached out and dug a hard hold of the heavy hair and fold of skin at the base of the dog’s tail and he turned and snarled at her but she gripped harder and shouted at him and he looked at her again and then turned back to the wolves. She would let the wolves eat the ox before she would let the dog off the cart. He was all she had. She thought a moment of Blood returning with a mended axle and only a single ox for a load that needed a team and wished he was here, that he’d waited until morning to set off and then she realized that if the ox was killed they would have to go through something like this all over again and she began to shout at the wolves. At first just words yelled, Git, Git, Git Out Of Here, and then the delicious fever of release came over her and she began just to scream, the high drawn pitched cry of her soul–and her screaming seemed to enthrall the wolves. One sat on its haunches in the snow and tipped back its head and watched her and the other two slipped back a scant pace and weaved among the trees. The one seated then began to howl, its mouth agape to the night and the long cry coming as if answering her. And she screamed back and the hound and ox roared their wails as well and the night filled with this music against the silent old forbearing earth.
One of the other wolves, made bold by the sound or finding it provoking or just too hungry to wait longer made a dash in toward the ox and the ox turned and slashed with a hindfoot that struck nothing but sent the wolf back toward the dark and it was then, still screaming and not knowing what she was doing, that she raised the rifle and did not aim so much as simply hold the howling wolf with her eyes so it was secured under the barrel of the gun and she hammered back the lock and pulled the trigger and the rifle went off with a tremendous
concussion that nearly threw her from the hogshead. A glut of powdersmoke sifted through the air and the falling snow was obscured for a moment. And the music was smothered. The first thing she could hear out of the ringing silence was the trifling spatter of snow against the covered ground.
©2002 by Jeffrey Lent. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Lost Nation is about a man known only as Blood. A man of learning and wisdom with a secret past that has scorched his soul, Blood remakes himself as a trader, hauling with him Sally, a sixteen-year-old girl won from the madam of a brothel in a game of cards. Their arrival in Indian Stream–a land where the luckless or outlawed have made a fresh start–triggers an escalating series of clashes that will not only sever the master-servant bond between Blood and Sally, but also force Blood to confront his own dreaded past and offer Sally a final escape. In prose both lucid and seductive, the story carries us deep into human and natural conditions of extreme desolation and harrowing hardship, and at the same time gives us the relentless beat of hope and, finally, the redeeming strength of love.
Questions for Discussion:
1. In what ways can Lost Nation be seen as a reworking of an odyssey theme? Consider the voyages, the search for self, search for father, trials and testing, meeting monster figures, and glimpses of the idyllic. Think about these possibilities. What other examples of the quest theme do you find? How does the title lead us to examine communities as well as individuals that are lost in the novel?
2. Throughout the novel, Lent holds the idea of freedom up to the light of inquiry. In some ways Blood is the ultimate free man, free to abandon his family, to explore depravity, to reinvent himself over and over. His separation from others is entirely of his own making.
Yet he consistently declares that no man is free: the “exercise of free will was a mere mask for destiny or fate.” Consider this recurring paradox in Lost Nation. Sally, in contrast, begins in literal bondage, tied to the back of an oxcart. How does she attempt to alter her destiny? Does she succeed? What other characters try to grapple with their destinies?
3. At one point we learn that Blood had spotted Sally in the brothel a year before he returned and calculated to win her in a card game. Sally herself “guessed he saw her as something he might make amends to, amends for a fester tracked back to before she was even born” (p. 175). Was he motivated to save her, or did he sense, perhaps in his subconscious, that she was to be the instrument of his peace and redemption? Consider their relationship in light of Blood’s own daughter. Is he seeking to bury those memories or re-create them?
4. Blood appears in the somewhat God-fearing Indian Stream country as a stranger with a murky past only whispered about. He uses only a single name, furthering his role as a symbolic one. One thinks of a Hawthorne tale in which an Outsider forces people to confront their own hidden flaws.In what other ways do you see Blood as a symbolic character? Or do you see him more as all too human, an Everyman perhaps? Could he be an unwitting emissary for good as well as bad? What happens to Indian Stream when Blood and Sally come, and what does it say about communities and their ability to adapt to the unknown?
5. From Blood’s grandfather to Sally’s grandchild, there are circles turning back on themselves in the novel. What is the role of Blood’s children in this respect? Of Sally’s miracle child and grandchild? Another cycle in the book is entering the heart of darkness and emerging through some kind of grace or redemption. What are examples of this cycle?
6. Blood is at least twice described in images that recall Christ. One is his riding on a mule with a child throwing pebbles at him (p.213). Another is Blood’s injury “as if he were nailed through to the floor” (p. 254). He himself would be the first to deny the analogy. How do you account for the martyr imagery in this complex reprobate?
7. Huge, black, mythic in his loyalty and his power, Blood’s dog Luther plays a central role in the novel. He can appear diabolic to others, but to Blood, and eventually Sally, he becomes family and ally. Consider the many moments when he is a protector to the couple. Mysteriously he intuits their needs and reacts. To what degree does his demise prefigure Blood’s fate?
8. What are we to make of the ethics, the morality of Blood? There are many examples of his violence, whoring, abuse of Sally, and other bestial actions in his past. Blood can be utterly lacking in charity (for instance, his refusal to offer any aid to Simon Crane, which drives that man to a grisly end). How can Blood’s intransigence be justified, if at all?
There are also moments of his tender caring for others (for the wounded Deacon, for Sally) and outright bravery, such as stopping the fighting, going alone as emissary to Hutchinson, cleaning and dressing his horrific wound. What in the end is your assessment of this complex character? Certainly he is not conventionally virtuous, but we miss him when he is not there; his sons do not fill the void. Discuss these ideas.
9. In a dark, often bleak tale, we still find flashes of humor. The humor may be rueful, ironic, on the edge of horror. For example, faced with Wilson’s putrefied skull (p. 61), Simon Crane’s comment reminds us of Shakespeare’s fools or perhaps Hamlet: “Why he’s in two places at once. He’s right here alongside where I can see everything he’s up to. But he is also back to the camp, keeping track of things there.” Can you think of other examples of humor in the book? Does the wit serve as a springboard to serious issues?
10. Love and forgiveness are states of grace that occur at certain points in the story. When? Which characters also need to forgive themselves? How is the process facilitated? When, in this often dark tale, is love achieved, even if it is temporary? How is it threatened or destroyed? Which characters, having lost love, are able to reconstitute it?
11. The narrator casts a jaundiced eye on human behavior for the most part, but lyrical evocations of nature (land, waters, sky, seasons, plants) are celebratory–often like Eden. Are we meant to conclude that some redemption is possible through a close association with the natural world? Which descriptions of nature are memorable to you?
Consider particularly Sally’s responses to the natural world; even Blood finds a remarkable peace in the physical work of turning over their first garden. Both Blood and Sally find in the new garden “the grace of simple work. And the attendant grace of solitude” (p. 67). It is the land that confers these benefits upon them, rather than people. What is Lent suggesting about human beings and nature?
12. The heart of darkness recurrent in the novel is at one point described by Blood (explaining that where Sally came from, she is better off now, with him, despite her occupation). “There are places in this world where a body just starts out flat and goes lower and lower. There are places that don’t have any doors, no ways out.” Discuss this existential metaphor of no exit for various characters. At what point does the image become concrete, an actuality for Blood?
13. Indian Stream is betwixt and between. The nebulous legal status of the land between Canada and the United States reflects ambiguity in the world of men. The people of the community are afraid of lawlessness and their precarious claims to the land, yet the threat of “the law,” calling in the sheriff, looms as ominously as the Indians’ incursions. In this land of wild, ungoverned territory, is it clear that “civilization” is going to do it much good?
14. Emil Chase is introduced as a leader of the Indian Stream community. His antipathy to Blood leads us to expect a High Noon confrontation. Chase and Blood are near the same age, and they share similar frontier traits–both “practical, thrifty, hard-working and sober.” Chase, however, regards himself as “a whole man. While Blood knew otherwise of himself.”
Discuss the roles of the two men as they intersect. Can they be seen as doubles, as doppelganger characters? “Each recognized the other as adversary, opponent, as the one man in this place who, save by chance or accident, might destroy the other if either chose” (p. 75). What are the consequences of their relationship in the novel?
15. Sally, born in shame and raised to debauchery, is tethered to the back of Blood’s cart like an animal or the slave she is. She herself claims she’s “tougher’n dried cod,” yet retains the freshness and na’vet” of a girl: “her life so unexpected ingenuous with delight” (p. 20). For Blood, Sally provokes “a tenderness that he thought was gone long since. Determined she would never know it, he now thought of her as something out of providence. Perhaps, he thought, nothing more than yet another test of his soul” (p. 19).
Sally, illiterate, debased, emerges as a survivor, as Blood always predicted, especially after she shot the wolf. Consider her multiple roles in the novel, from slave-prostitute to nurturer to heroine. Sally is part of a tradition of decent-indecent women. One thinks of Belle Watkins in Gone with the Wind and Mrs. Waters in Tom Jones. Can you think of others in books or movies?
16. At the center of the novel, Lent creates a concatenation of events that hurtle to inevitable ends. Each incident acts as a portent and prod for the next. There is the accidental shooting and then desecration of the Indian, hung to swing as a warning–an act regarded by Blood as foolhardy provocation. Equally disturbing is the disappearance of the body (“no footprints”) and next the decamping of the five Canadian inhabitants who “departed soundless in the dark.” Then is the deadly confrontation between Laberge and Bacon, ending in the desecration of yet another body–and more violent consequences. What are Sally’s and Blood’s reactions, and how do the events affect their relationship? What about the larger community?
17. Our moral sense is chilled by Sally’s occupation, both her businesslike acceptance and Blood’s encouraging her to continue, even as their own relationship develops. How do we deal with their actions? Or, conversely, do we need to suspend ordinary judgment in this book? Why?
Sally, in the marshland, says, “There is nothing simple in this life” (p. 264 ). What are her thoughts at that point about the two boys and about Blood, whom she has abandoned? The narrator says, “Still, she would not leave it thus.” How do you (and how does she) explain her defining action?
18. We recall Emil Chase’s accusing Blood of hubris, of overconfidence: “How did you get educated so far beyond right or wrong?” (p. 77). Later, when Blood is incarcerated, he is sure that “he had done nothing money could not smooth.” (p. 216). How accurate is his assessment? Consider the later scene with Blood and his bags of coins at the stream. How is the scene richly symbolic?
19. Both Blood and Sally claim to believe “past is past.” Are they able to make that statement true in their own lives? How?
20. Futility and waste mark the efforts of the people of Indian Stream even after enormous efforts on their part to establish their community. Indeed, they regarded themselves as virtuous, and yet many fared no better than the sinner Blood. How can human beings persevere if there is no ultimate reward for virtue ? How does Blood ultimately evaluate his own life?
21. “It was some mystery that led a person from one fate to another.” Moving on and abandonment are motifs that run through the novel. It is in an idyllic late August marshland with red-winged blackbirds, “the light glancing off the still ponds, the sweet smell of the moist earth,” that Sally realized “something was possible” (p. 175). She was poised to move on with her sockful of money, despite her reassurances to Blood that she was not going to bolt. What other characters, major and minor, find it necessary to pack up and leave? What are the results?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Mathiessen; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon; In the Rogue Blood by James Carlos Blake; Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad; The Siege by Helen Dunmore; Peace Like a River by Leif Enger; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; O Pioneers! by Willa Cather; Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison