Summer Reading: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert

6 Sep

Confession: sometimes I write reviews of books that I only have vague memories of because I’m a horrible procrastinator but I kind of wing it because I remember how the book made me feel and I can recall the details as I write. Not so with Timothy Schaffert’s novel, The Coffins of Little Hope. Published by Unbridled Books, I bought the ebook of Coffins for my nook, and it was – hands down – the first book I’ve read on my nook that made me forget that I was not reading an actual book. That’s how complete and enchanting the experience Schaffert creates is. Narrated by Essie, the spunkiest obit-writing octogenarian I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, The Coffins of Little Hope tells the story of a small town embroiled in big drama. While the town seems like an Everytown on the outside, the characters that populate are anything but ordinary. There is so much plot in this novel and so much I want to discuss, but don’t want to give away, that I’m cheating a little and using Unbridled’s plot summary:

When a young country girl is reported to be missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer, Essie stumbles onto the story of her life. Or, it all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and child-thief invented from the desperate imagination of a lonely, lovelorn woman. Either way, the story of the girl reaches far and wide, igniting controversy, attracting curiosity-seekers and cult worshippers from all over the country to this dying rural town.  And then it is revealed that the long awaited final book of an infamous series of YA gothic novels is being secretly printed on the newspaper’s presses.

In most books, the story of a missing child would seem to be the main plot focus, the details of which every other narrative arc in the story would revolve around. But that is not the case here. Schaffert manages to make the disappearance a minor detail; it is the actual existence of the child in question that becomes the crux of the story. It’s one of many unexpected but charming twists that make up this tale. The multiple narrative arcs at times appear to be confusing but in actuality are all so intertwined that it’s difficult to pick apart all the threads that make up the larger story. There are elements that I personally love – the downfall and impact of a small-town newspaper’s closing, the power of shared experience in reading, the attitude of a teenager that means well but is still a teenager – but there are so many other pieces that it’s impossible to pin them all down. In this way, Schaffert manages to do what few authors (at least in my opinion) accomplish: he tells a story.

I find a distinct difference in being a storyteller rather than a novelist, and I honestly can’t explain the distinctions. It’s more of a “know it when you read it” kind of style, but I felt like I was being told a story, and the emotion I felt while reading it was akin to the feeling of being a child and listening to a bedtime story. I was charmed and bewitched by the tone, the setting, the characters, the plot — even the way Schaffert describes the seasons is enchanting! Here’s an excerpt:

This began not as a book but as an obit of a kind for a little girl who up and went missing one simple summer day. On this girl we pinned all hopes of our dying town’s salvation. The longer we went without seeing her even once, the more and more dependent upon her we grew. She became our leading industry, her sudden nothingness a valuable export, and we considered changing the name of our town to hers; we would live in the town of Lenore. Is it any wonder that we refused to give up hope despite all the signs that she’d never existed, that she’d never been anybody—never, not even before she supposedly vanished?

By the time Daisy, the mother of that vaporous Lenore, finally called me to her farmhouse, after all the weeks of bickering and debate that enlivened our town yet ruined its soul, after most of the events of this book had passed, no one anywhere was any longer waiting for word of Lenore’s death. For some of us, Lenore was nothing but a captivating hoax, while for others, she was a grim tragedy, a mystery cynically left unsolved.

You were either one of the ones who truly believed in Lenore or you were one of the ones who believed in the same way you believe in the trickling stigmata of a plastic Virgin, with a trust in magic and miracle mostly for the thrill of it. Or you were one of the ones with no faith at all. Those were the ones, the ones with disbelief, who benefited the most, who made the most money on the sad pilgrims who skulked in and out of our town.

Some of you may say I’m just as bad as the worst of the people who’ve exploited the summer, fall, and winter of Lenore, that I’ve played this story like an accordion for the purposes of melodrama, squeezing and stretching, inflating and deflating scenes and events at will. But I stand behind all the truths in this story of deception. Maybe because I’ve so long looked so old, even when I was relatively young, that people feel they can be revealing around me, that they can unbutton their lips and let slip intimate facts and trust that I have the maturity to keep my mouth shut.

Isn’t that language gorgeous?? I’ve tagged this as Summer Reading, and the book begins in the summer – the kind of hot and hazy summer feeling that’s so familiar in DC – but it transitions through the seasons over the course of a year or so and it’s perfect right now, as we move from summer to fall. And while I read it in the peak of summer, I am sorely tempted to read it again now to get an entirely different seasonal effect. I have no trouble at all calling this one of my favorite books of the year. Check out some of the other accolades it’s gotten here and buy a copy here or here. Highly recommended.

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3 Responses to “Summer Reading: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert”

  1. Kathy September 6, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    I am glad you liked this story, I did too! I enjoyed your review.

    http://bookdiary2010.blogspot.com/2011/07/coffins-of-little-hope.html

  2. Meg @ A Bookish Affair September 7, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    A book that makes you forget that you’re reading on an ereader? That in itself is enough for me to pick up this book. I’m a reluctant ereader user!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Omaha Lit Fest: ‘People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like’ « Leo Adam Biga's Blog - October 7, 2011

    […] Summer Reading: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert (homebetweenpages.com) […]

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