Monday, April 11, 2011

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
272 pages
Published April 2011 by Unbridled Books
Source: the publisher

Essie Myles is an octagenarian, writing obituaries for the newspaper that her grandson, Doc, is running, the same newspaper that Essie's father started. Between them, they've been raising Doc's niece, Tiffany, since her mother ran off with her lover seven years ago.

The small Nebraska town they live in has been struggling for years, fighting to remain a real town and not an homage to the past, a past that never really existed, as had happened to other nearby towns.
"The grocery store was now a museum, the post office a gallery of Western art, the haberdashery a concert hall due to its quirky acoustics. For years the bountiful Myrtle Kingsley Fitch [a long deceased author who had lived in the town] Foundation had been saving that dying rural town by killing it, inch by inch, and casting it in amber"
 Then the  publisher of a hugely popular children's book series asks Doc to be one of a group of small presses that will be printing the final installment of the series in an effort to keep the story secret. The buzz is akin to that of the Harry Potter books but the books themselves felt to me much more like the Series of Unfortunate Events books.

Real change comes to the town, however, when one of the employees of the press, Daisy, reports that her daughter has been abducted by an aerial photographer who's been spending time at her farm. A daughter who, as it turns out, may or may not have existed. Daisy confides the details to Doc and his stories in the paper soon attract other media, curiosity seekers and even some who will soon form a cult called Lenorians (a term coined by Tiff after the girl, Lenore). Doc, Essie and Tiff all find themselves caught up in the drama even as they deal with the return of Tiff's mom.

There's a lot going on in this book, but Schaffert does a marvelous job of blending all of the elements in a non-linear style with humor and empathy. The characters are at once quirky yet very real; in Essie, in particular, Schaffert has created a character who will stay with the reader. His writing is wonderfully descriptive; clearly this is a man who enjoys the intricacies of language. He is also appears to be a man who believes that not all technology is a good thing, as seen in this passage from Essie:
"I still used a manual typewriter (a 1853 Underwood portable, in a robin's-egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn't quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like. I need the hard metal clack, and need those keys to sometimes catch so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingertips inky."
Schaffert has summed up my resistance to ereaders and my ambivalence about audio books in this passage:
"Tiff needed the words on the page to become the voice in her head, her own voice, or an approximation of it, and she need the paper and the sound of the scratch of her chapped fingertips against it as she fiddled with each page, ever ready to turn it."
Schaffert is the driving force of the Omaha Lit Fest and I've been looking forward to reading this book since I heard him talking about it last fall. My anticipation was only heightened when I learned that Unbridled Books was the book's publisher. Regular readers know how much I love Unbridled Books! So I went into this book with high expectations and I'm very happy to be able to say that not only was I not disappointed, I was delighted to find this book is bound to remain one of my favorite books of the year.

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