Trembling the Ropes that Dangle in the Wings

In Reviews on September 30, 2013 at 7:00 am


by Erin McKnight

In a novel of compelling impressions it is an indelible image: Young siblings Annabel, Grethe, and Hart, with dog Duty at their heels, follow their grandmother through the park single file, each gripping the cord knotted expressly for their clutching right hands. And though the silken braid, once used for sofa pillows and parlor drapes but now reserved for children’s walking games, comes to represent a tragic loss of life, a resolute Jayne Anne Phillips ensures that the cord will also bind hope to the desperate territory Quiet Dell occupies.

Because to reach this place one must follow the trail of a con man whose every word implies malevolence. One must fall back to the early 30s, to when the nation struggled with its Depression, and travel to Quiet Dell, a town notorious for its gruesome past. Raised in West Virginia, Jayne Anne Phillips grew up with her mother’s memory of first passing the scene of the crime when she was just six years old; decades later, she has written the haunting story of how Asta Eicher and her three children come to cross paths with Harry Powers. But when the reader does reach this place, Phillips has also offered the waiting hand of journalist Emily Thornhill, for if the heart indeed beats against the palm, this character’s clutch sounds a dignified cadence.

During one of the Eicher siblings’ cherished outings with their enlightened grandmother Lavinia, they are advised to remain silent in order to “hear the small sounds” along their route. But in Quiet Dell, rendered factually with the inclusion of but four wholly fictional characters, the sound that travels the silken braid soon blares discordance. And although multiple points of view establish an honest accounting of a cunning murderer’s acts, the path to resolution is led by a trailblazing Emily—one of the first female Chicago Tribune reporters, a woman intrepid enough to follow her professional and personal instincts. The discoveries made along the way are horrifying and heartrending, but without Emily’s clarion voice the victims would risk being hushed by a morbid history.

In 1931 Chicago, Asta Eicher is in crisis. Widowed and raising three children—fourteen-year-old Grethe, left permanently affected by a childhood bout with measles and an unforgiving fever; Hart, twelve years old and exhibiting a protective nature not yet self-controlled; and Annabel, a precocious but sensitive nine-year-old—Asta faces the certain loss of the family home. Although the bank president’s efforts are valiant, Asta’s skill as a silversmith and the meager provisions of a husband struck and killed by a streetcar are not enough: the Eicher house is to be sold. So she responds to a matrimonial agency ad placed by a wealthy man “looking for the right kind of woman.” And although she can’t possibly know it yet, Asta Eicher’s grip on her own life has just loosened.

Because for Cornelius O. Pierson, the right kind of woman is lonely—and loaded. Except Asta isn’t, and her demise comes after failing to disclose her dire financial situation to Pierson ahead of their physical meeting. For a woman accustomed to a comfortable life, it is perhaps the ad’s promise of becoming a wife who “would have her own car and plenty of spending money” that sees Asta tucking away the heartfelt letters as she plans in private for a future she and her children will never enjoy. And can she be faulted: trapped in a distasteful years-long end to a difficult marriage, for allowing herself to be drawn to the offer from a “dear unknown friend” of having “nothing to do but enjoy herself”?

The trap is set even before Asta responds to the lonely-hearts ad that proclaims Pierson to possess the very qualities—stability; financial wealth; good character; a cautious nature—that he pursues in his target widow. The irony that Eicher and Pierson seek in each other what neither is entirely able to offer can hardly go unnoticed, but the full horror of what transpires after Asta’s pennilessness is discovered ends up buried alongside her beneath a garage in Quiet Dell. It is possible, however, to trace Pierson’s—really Harry Powers’s—path, arriving first to whisk Asta away, then returning without her a week later to retrieve the children, in the care of the now-deceased Lavinia’s medical nurse. To the world beyond the Victorian’s windows, a mother and her children simply slip from sight.

It is bank president William Malone—“noble, protective, skeptical”—who, eight weeks later, raises the alarm and calls on the Park Ridge mayor to recommend a journalist who can “be factual, yet sensitive, particularly to the family” ahead of the story’s breaking. Distressed over his own absence on the day young Grethe came into his bank, alone, with a forged note requesting one thousand dollars in cash, Malone, who would have immediately contacted police and accompanied the girl home, instead advised his teller to inform Grethe that the signature wasn’t her mother’s and she should return the next day for his help. But the “too trusting” girl was permitted to leave—and take the note with her. And although it is written correspondence that Powers uses to repeatedly tighten his grip, his manipulative words also bring about his undoing; the numerous letters he sent Asta are discovered and he is quickly tracked to his farm in Quiet Dell.

Every step of the way, Emily Thornhill is at Powers’s heels as she demands justice through her coverage for the Tribune. After entering the Eicher home and observing ominous signs of disturbance, Emily, in true investigative reporter fashion, commits every detail to memory as she explores the still corners of a home once clamorous, and feels a “a brilliant rage harden inside her.” It is when she comes across an injured bull terrier responding to the name of Duty but no longer able to bark due to a wound on its neck resembling a shovel’s edge, however, that Powers’s silencing of his innocent victims truly resounds. So after some of the family’s possessions are found in his West Virginia garage—this following Emily’s discovery of one of Annabel’s drawings that depicts a “figure, drawn in ink and delicately painted … hover[ing] between two clouds” which whispers the child’s “extraordinary” nature through its “intent and effect”—she and her new canine charge head for Quiet Dell and to the scene of a crime already sensational.

For conditions are taking shape by the very moment, the knotty bonds formed during the investigation established through an abrupt twisting of circumstance that also prove profound in their longstanding intention. Emily and former New York Times reporter and current coworker and competitor Eric Lindstrom operate as a “tag team” in their pursuit of Powers and his story, Eric doing “the photographs and stiff upper lip, the just-the-facts dispatches,” while Emily offers “features of imaginative detail, and the soulful moral lessons.” Resulting from Phillips’s apparent conviction that the Powers story is actually subordinate to the Eicher story—and that the family members’ horrible deaths cannot possibly represent their hopeful lives—the novel’s intimate relationships may be viewed as sliding into place with what borders on discomfiting ease; coupledom, especially, is achieved without revelation as characters seem to stumble into each other’s arms.

Yet, such interactions work to tighten the connective cord against atrocity and establish an abiding sense of emotional stability. The reader, too, would be remiss in failing to take into account a socially prescriptive milieu, for this was a time when a career woman had to consider her “girl reporter” image and refer to herself as the cousin of her journalistic partner while chasing a grim truth she is singly qualified to discover; a time, too, when illicit relationships—homosexual or adulterous—required neighboring apartments and hidden entrances. A time when a widow kept quiet: about her bad marriage, her lack of funds, and her quest for love. Such suppression is thankfully rendered audible, however, through a charged atmosphere that brings people together in passion—and just possibly challenges perversion. In staying true to fact, Phillips projects numerous voices; to include those that don’t propel the narrative forward would be discordant with fiction writing.

It is the texture of the telling that elevates this recounting from true crime to the realm of literary eminence. Because Phillips exhibits an extraordinary sense of control over a story with which she passionately connects; despite dedicating the book to Annabel—and focusing much of her mesmerizing attention on the girl before and after her death—the author hears every utterance. Even Powers is granted an evenhanded measure of consideration:

The boy was off, a broken clock, a complicated works. He jabbered and mimicked, cunning, watchful, hoarding things and then creatures, concealing all until the father found pieces on the rubbish lot behind the store: birds, young kittens, his wife’s small dog. The boy was twelve. The father beat him. Forced him to bury it all by lantern light, keep it secret.

Quiet Dell, a novel of reticence, loudly declares that no event is merely one thing and no person simply one way. Imaginative girls are also visionary. Independent women vulnerable. Even murderers are more than their actions. Phillips’s acknowledged intent to shed light on dark historical and human events also challenges any hesitation arising over author subjectivity or a sometimes sentimentalized spirit—certainly the ultimate question of how the effort relates to its outcome.

Best exemplifying Phillips’s accomplishment is her accounting of the trial. Held in an opera house outfitted for a courtroom and its frenzied spectators, a mood of “performance” permeates the grand space. And once the lights dim, the dramatics commence. Yet although Powers is physically present and speaking for himself, the reader will likely be transfixed, as Emily is, by the near-fantastical stage: “Tall canvases depicting forest trees were arrayed…. The branches, daubed with pastel leaves, glittered as though dusted with mica…. The illusion of depth was startling.”

So too is the “watercolor” nature of this decisive final scene, the certainty that amid the sharply inked depictions of a man as vacant in physicality as he is in conscience hovers a figure enveloped by a “faint glow or halo” who “moves amongst the painted trees, a swaying waltz to show the limbs in motion, and turns in measured time, trembling the ropes that dangle in the wings.” For the silken cord is once again in use by an Eicher child, though this time Annabel’s movement suggests that “we no longer speak in words when we have slipped away.” As evidenced in the triumphant Quiet Dell, even after the cord is severed we continue to project volume, and there exist women—Emily Thornhill, Jayne Anne Phillips—perceptive enough to hear, and respond to, the smallest of humanity’s sounds.


Discussed in this essay:

Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. Scribner. 2013. 464 pages. $28.

Erin McKnight is the publisher of Queen’s Ferry Press. Her own writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and W.W. Norton’s The Best Creative Nonfiction, and her reviews of fiction and poetry titles can be found in multiple venues. Erin lives in Dallas with her husband and young daughter.

Photo: Still from The Night of the Hunter, 1955 

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