Gutcheon weaves lives and centuries

April 23, 2000|By Harry Merritt | Harry Merritt,Sun Staff

"More Than You Know," by Beth Gutcheon. William Morrow. 269 pages. $24.

Hannah Gray is old now, but she has a story she wants to tell while there's still time.

It's from the summer she was 17, during the Great Depression, in a small town called Dundee on the coast of Maine.

That summer, Hannah found her first love, "the one you never forget and never get over," and wrenching loss, and learned that the past, even when it is someone else's, can come back to haunt you in ways that change you forever.

"More Than You Know," Beth Gutcheon's satisfying, often chilling literary novel, is part love story, part ghost story, and part the story of a dismal marriage in the 19th century.

Gutcheon moves back and forth from Hannah in the 1930s to the 19th century couple, Claris and Danial Haskell, in alternating chapters until it becomes all too clear that their stories will meet, with tragic consequences. Annoying at first, this technique soon becomes spellbinding.

Young Hannah, from Boston, spent that life-changing summer in Dundee, her late mother's hometown, with her stepmother Edith and younger half-brother.

Bored, and having a rocky time with Edith, Hannah falls for a handsome local boy, Conary Crocker, "an all-around wild seed." Besides young love, they share a secret: Both know that the house Hannah lives in is haunted, but the question is by whom.

Hannah learns that the last occupant of the house, an elderly woman, fell down the stairs in a fright and never recovered. The house was once the schoolhouse on the now deserted Beal Island, where Haskells had lived for generations. And she learns that Danial Haskell was axed to death in 1886, perhaps by his daughter, Sallie.

Could the ghost be Sallie? Whoever, or whatever, "there was something in there that was furious, bitter, that other people were going on with their lives."

Hannah's discoveries are made in between the chapters about the Haskells, which open with the young Claris Osgood, a shipbuilder's daughter, in 1848. Serious and determined, Claris "could sit for hours with her backbone straight as a rod."

A decade later, Claris meets Danial, who scrapes out a living fishing and farming, and decides to marry him despite her family's warnings about "a sour streak" in the Haskell family.

The newylweds move in with Danial's mother and brother on Beal Island. The Haskells prove to be sort of people who believe that life is only meant to be endured, not enjoyed. Danial forbids music and resents visits to Claris' fun-loving relatives on the mainland. Claris loses one baby, then another. Only the birth of a son, Amos, redeems the "thick atmosphere of paralyzing bleakness" that engulfs Claris.

More sorrow and sacrifice await, however, but Claris won't admit that her family was right about Danial. The axing of Danial, when it happens, is most welcome, but Gutcheon maintains the suspense -- of who killed him, of who the ghost is -- until the very end. Talk about your "page-turners!"

Harry Merritt, an editor on The Sun's city desk, worked previously at newspapers in Mississippi, Kentucky and Minnesota.

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