Book Reviews: The Missing Fathers Club

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Michael Piazza

A traveling father, a runaway father, a silent father, and a father who never shows up: These are the strands that truss three fine novels and a story collection together like a stuffed Thanksgiving turkey.

The hero of A Simple Murder, by Eleanor Kuhns, is Will Rees, a traveling weaver whose son runs away and joins the Shakers. When Will catches up, he uses his gift for untangling threads to solve a string of murders. Although I doubt anyone in 1795 would describe a man as being “in sheriff mode,” I got caught up in the story and didn’t guess the murderer until the climax.

In Wonder Show, by Hannah Barnaby, it’s a father who runs away. His daughter, Portia, joins a traveling carnival’s freak show. Barnaby, who lives in Connecticut, has a gift for vivid analogy; she compares a tube of lipstick to a shotgun shell, and describes fall as the time when “the carnival breaks apart like mercury.”

I’ve been an Ernest Hebert fan for more than 30 years. Never Back Down, an achingly truthful novel, is the saga of Jack Landry of Keene, New Hampshire, whose father came home from World War II and sat silently in the living room for six months. Like all of Hebert’s books, it celebrates people who work with their hands. “I saw the thick, rough hands of a woodsman,” Jack says of his own. “I saw the raw hands of the laundry man, the dishwasher, and the custodian. I saw the skilled hands of the telephone man making a connection … I saw the careful hands of a careful cab driver.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo, who lives in Maine and Boston, joins his daughter, artist Kate Russo, in another tribute to the work of hands. Interventions comprises four of his short works, plus color prints of four of her paintings, individually bound and gathered in a slipcase. My favorite is about an elderly nun in a college fiction class who writes about her life as a prostitute’s daughter raised in a convent. Another student complains that she feels cheated by the absence of a father in the story: “Sister Ursula dutifully noted this criticism, but you had only to look at the old woman to know that the father was never going to show up. Anybody who felt cheated by this could just join the club.”

A Simple Murder, by Eleanor Kuhns (Minotaur Books; $24.99)

Wonder Show, by Hannah Barnaby (Houghton Mifflin; $16.99)

Never Back Down, by Ernest Hebert (David R. Godine; $24.95)

Interventions, by Richard Russo, illustrated by Kate Russo (Down East Books, $40)


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