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.
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.
Even so, as Secret Agent Jane declares early in the game, “Some words are very real. Some words are like air. Even with these glasses, this job is harder than you think.”
As they navigate the nonlinear plot and the politics of Chute’s characters, readers may agree.
Perhaps the most sympathetic character in this sprawling novel is 15-year-old Mickey Gammon, a lifelong resident of Egypt, Maine. When his brother, who supports the teen, banishes him from the house, Mickey decamps for a treehouse in the woods.
Soon he discovers the local militia, captained by Rex York. Rex is a loner who lives with his mother and attempts to discipline his daughter, a teenage wild child.
Mickey sees these militia men and women who gather in the woods with their guns and camoflage clothing as survivors, something he needs to be.
Through Rex and the militia, young Mickey meets Gordon and the rest of the Settlement dwellers who eventually invite him to live on the commune.
Their community supports a home schooling curriculum of quilting, brown bread baking, beer brewing – all fostered to instill a “fearless curiosity” in the children.
Initially, Mickey isn’t convinced that the Settlement ways are any better than living in a treehouse. (After all, he still wears the same clothes, smells of mildew, and swats at mosquitoes.)
To help readers navigate her novel, Chute precedes each section with a pictorial icon depicting the 13 points of view, including Secret Agent Jane, the meddlesome neighbors, the future, Pluto, God, a crow, the TV, and the voice of Mammon.
Both the crow and the TV serve as a form of contemporary Greek chorus, echoing the action and warning us of things to come.
And the things to come are monumental and complicated.
A big scene with firepower, blood, and guts. A march on the Maine state Capitol.
Even so, there’s no real ending here. Chute has said that the novel will be part of a five-book series (or “a 5-o-gy,” as she calls it).
The story lines not quite tied up in “The School on Heart’s Content Road” are likely to be revealed. The characters left undeveloped may blossom.
Perhaps it is Chute’s personal involvement with the 2nd Maine Militia (also known as Your Wicked Good Militia) that gives this novel its authenticity, its sense of having been knitted together out of “truth” – or, at least, the facts as the writer sees them.
As the story ends, readers may wonder if the eerily prescient Prophet Gordon isn’t onto something indeed. He’s “weary of the fuzzy edges to right and wrong, the cruelties of kindness, the rightness of greed.”
Lamenting the loss of Egypt’s small businesses, he muses: “It’s a game you can’t win. Yes, yes honesty is silly. According to the new way.... And besides the stock market is on borrowed time, no?”
“The School on Heart’s Content Road” is a triumph of characterization and color. Following the plot requires concentration, energy, and a willingness to look past the political posturing and simply enjoy the ride.