Betty Levin's new novel shows that it is still possible to write an engrossing, serious book for adolescents without having to submerge the reader in the trendy bath of new wave, ultrarealistic subject matter. "The Keeping Room" is not yet one more excursion into "hot" contemporary issues, propelled by angst, frustration, obscenity, or violence. Nor is it an excuse to provide a running critique of our fractured, "meaningless" society and the youth who are struggling in it. Which is not to say that Betty Levin is blind to these matters or that her book lacks narrative punch. Rather, she is concerned here with telling a story that portrays the possibility of compassionate relationships between people, old and young, past and present.
As the novel opens, Hal Woodruff is stuck with a term project for his high-school history class. His young, socially conscious teacher, Lew Rifkin, is intent on making the class more aware of the history that is alive and surrounding them in their small town of Westwick, an old village on the outskirts of Boston. Reluctantly, Hal turns his attention to his assignment: to research Candlewood, an abandoned, undeveloped section of the town, before a new subdivision completely transforms the land and its history. Like the other students, Hal fails to see the point of the exercise, but his curiosity is piqued when he discovers that there is a "curse" attached to Candlewood due to the mysterious disappearance there in the 1840s of a young girl, Hannah Wray.
In the course of his probing into the history of Candlewood, Hal meets and becomes close friends with Harriet and Harvey Titcomb, the elderly and (by contemporary standards) somewhat peculiar descendants of Hannah. The Titcombs have tenaciously held and worked the land in their family since Hannah vanished. Through the Titcombs and the old letters and magazines in their attic, Hal finds the first clues concerning the family tragedy that haunts Candlewood.He explores the dump on the property, near the sight of the old farm and its "keeping room," a primitive room for storing a winter's worth of provisions for a homestead. When the dump is being bulldozed at the story's climax, it yields the final and most important pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that concerns not only Hannah's fate in the past, but also the lives of the characters in the present. The Titcombs are nearly displaced from their land, as Hannah had been over a century earlier; Lew Rifkin suffers the same kind of heartrending loss as Hannah's family did when his own five-year- old daughter, Emily, disappears, like Hannah. It is left to Hal to unravel the web of coincidences that are binding the past to the present.
Betty Levin's point is that people and events arem connected; history speaks to us with a human voice often we must learn how to listen. The author could have made this novel into a time fantasy or a literal ghost story, but her plot is more convincing because she chooses to play it straight, without tricks. The uncanny penetration of historical events into our own present is believable and all the more mysterious because it is realistically presented.
The words of Daniel Webster, read by Hal while he is doing his research in "Pierpont's Reader" or remembered by Hannah in her lonely winter's vigil in the keeping room, are alive with consequence; they weave a spell that holds the novel together: "Those who shall stand here 100 years hence . . . shall know, at least, that we possessed affections, which running backward, and warming with gratitude for what our ancestors have done for our happiness, run forward also to our posterity, and meet with cordial salutation, ere yet they have arrived on the shore of Being."
This book is one of those "cordial salutations" to the past from the present -- an intelligent, subtle, graceful, and in many places (particularly in the evocation of Hannah's life) a moving book. Though touched by sadness and pain, finally it is a book that resolves itself in "happiness," as Webster meant the word. And I, for one, am grateful to Betty Levin for writing it.