Saturday, February 19, 2011

Stabbed in Stanzas Book Review:The Northwoods Chronicles: A Novel in Stories (2011)

Reviewed by Karen L. Newman

I’ve never read anything by Elizabeth Engstrom before, but I’m sure glad I have now. The Northwoods Chronicles: A Novel in Stories is a stark study of human flaws and struggles told in twenty-one short stories featuring the various citizens of Vargas County. The backdrop for these tales is the supernatural disappearances of the county’s children, reaching back generations. How the people relate to these strange abductions and to each other is the meat of the novel.

Engstrom writes in an easy, flowing style, a simplicity that enhances the simplicity of her characters. The stories are set in the chronological order that they occurred. It helps to read the book in as few a sittings as possible because it’s easy to lose track of people that appeared toward the beginning and then are suddenly mentioned again later with no reintroduction. These characters seem to pop off the page. Most are relatable. Those that aren’t serve to highlight those that are.

These stories are very dark, almost to the point of depression without teetering over the edge. Murder abounds in addition to the disappearances. The emphasis of choice is a common thread throughout. People can leave Vargas County anytime they want. Those who choose to stay live with the consequences of losing people, even though they make a good living. These characters are an eclectic bunch: a preacher and his wife, various business owners, an old man, a recluse, a student, and a computer genius, to name a few. This large cast of characters reminds me of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology. Here the citizens aren’t dead, but deal with death. However, hope is offered toward the beginning with “Pearce and Regina” and at the end with “Sister Ruth”.

I think the ending of the book leaves too many unanswered questions and loose ends, for my taste. Maybe Engstrom’s planning to write another novel with these characters. A lot of references are inferred, including the ending - for example, the result of Sadie Katherine’s decision. The novel is thought-provoking. You can reread the book and take something new from it each time, a phenomenon uncommon for a lot of dark novels currently being published.

The Northwoods Chronicles: A Novel in Stories is a great read that should appeal to a lot of people, particularly those who don’t generally read horror. I recommend picking this one up.

--Karen Newman