The School on Heart's Content Road
Carolyn Chute brings readers back to the Maine woods for another sprawling novel that examines the lives of the working poor.
It had been some time since I’d opened a book with a full character list appended. The School on Heart’s Content Road, Carolyn Chute’s newest novel, has one, and she reminds the reader of it several times in the opening pages.Skip to next paragraph
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It’s probably a good thing. In a book filled with almost 40 speaking characters – including dogs – a list is necessary.
After a while though, I stopped referring to these humorous biographical sketches.
Truly, many of the characters are peripheral. The important actors in this drama are easy to remember.
Their voices are strong and distinct, impossible to confuse even when they are sisters of a sort, proudly wearing the almost identical red sashes that indicate that they are each one of the prophet’s numerous wives.
The prophet in question is Gordon St. Onge, a bookwormish construction worker. He manages the Settlement, a cooperative deep in rural Maine that produces alternative energy, fresh vegetables, and clothing for the prophet’s families.
To read a novel by Chute is to be plunged into a world well-known to her but entirely alien to most of her readers.
In the 1980s, Chute, who lives in a small compound at the end of an unpaved road in a rural Maine village and who is a founder of the 2nd Maine Militia, had a breakaway hit with her 1985 novel “The Beans of Egypt, Maine.”
In that novel she took readers into a world that many described as Faulknerian (if you could substitute the Maine woods for Louisiana and the Beans for the Snopseses).
Like “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” “The School of Heart’s Content Road” is a vivid tale. Chute’s writing is breathtaking. And once again, her depiction of the working poor is likely to evoke comparisons to Faulkner and Steinbeck.
In this novel, she takes us down Heart’s Content Road, where behind a gate marked by a sign warning against trespassing, live Gordon’s harem and his children – his assorted families.
They live there not as a last resort but rather because they are back-to-the-earth types who embrace the lifestyle.
Among them is one particularly appealing child, Jane Meserve, whose mother is in jail for a crime she possibly did not commit.
Unlike most of the others living there, young Jane hasn’t bought into the ways of the Settlement. She throws a tantrum when presented with yet another homemade brown bread, lettuce, and cold bean sandwich.
What Jane really wants is Little Debbie pastries and cheese curls. Out of spite, the child turns herself into “Secret Agent Jane” who wears all-seeing glasses with pink heart-shaped lenses.
She prowls the secretive cooperative, and even the outside world, with an eye to ratting out the community. Jane is gathering evidence which she hopes will reunite her with her Mum – in time for her seventh birthday.