The Kept (Harper, 2013), by James Scott, takes all the traits that make Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis special and turns them into conventions. It's set late in the 19th century, in upper New York, near Lake Erie. There's a revenge plot, very predictable. And the final scene is predictable, unsatisfying, a cop-out. There are high points and low points. The two main characters are a woman named Elspeth who finds her entire family—three children and a husband--murdered, except for one son, 12-year-old Caleb, hiding in the barn. He is the other main character. We're constantly learning new things about these characters, especially Elspeth, who prior to her family’s slaughter disappeared for months at a time, serving as a midwife in remote towns and villages, entirely beyond the reach of her family. Nothing is as it seems. Darkness and mud and ice abound. The book is structured around a historical event, a disaster in a factory that harvests ice from a frozen lake, but this seems a convenience.
The circumstances surrounding mother and son are so grim that we fail to believe even in the rare moments of hope that the novel offers. Caleb, by horrible circumstance beyond his control, and Elspeth, both by her own acts and by her situation, are doomed. This seems beyond dispute even from the earliest pages. Doom can come in various forms—moral, legal, violent, psychological, even supernatural, and all of those apply here in some way. The author so convinces us of this doom that the story hardly seems worth reading to the end. To have these characters rescued in would betrayed the book’s own principles. Their situation is one from which rescue is not possible. The novel tempts us to believe in some redemptive glimmer, then denies it completely. The final scene recalled the penultimate moment in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997), whose sadness is tempered by an epilogue. Here, there is no tempering, and in that regard this novel at least is honest.