Henry james once said that America was too young a country to have any good stories in it. Perhaps he knew too little of New England (except for Boston). The rocks and walls, the steep mountains and hard winters alone make New England a natural setting for novels. Add to that people with high-pitched, clipped speech and sturdy—some might say rigid—religion. Complex characters rooted in rock and ground.

John Gardner, who lives in Vermont, takes us to this stubborn land and its people in October Light (Knopf, $10). Despite its mixed reviews, the novel was named by all publications that compile such lists one of last year’s most significant books (it was published in December). As its title suggests, the book hovers between seasons, not quite winter but no longer autumn. Not quite the future but no longer the past. A present unequally mixed of both. Eerie. Shadowed. A New England light in October is hard to see by; much of the action of the book takes place at dusk or evening.

Sally Page Abbott, eighty, lives with her seventy-two-year-old brother James, a crotchety beekeeper and farmer. He hates television—it spews immorality—and he shoots a hole in his sister’s set. That starts the quarrel. A few days later he chases her to her room with a log from the fireplace and locks the door behind her. At first he won’t let her out; then she refuses to leave her room.

Sally’s niece, her niece’s husband, her old friends, and her minister all try to talk her into what she considers surrender. To Sally the issue is not just a silly quarrel but a moral matter. James must recognize his sins, how he destroyed his son, his wife, and now his sister. Sally is the instrument of healing for James and his family.

While Sally stays in her room she reads ...

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