Spring Preview: Two literary ghosts, a missing girl, a small town: Timothy Schaffert's The Coffins of Little Hope

The Coffins of Little Hope
by Timothy Schaffert
Unbridled Books | 9781609530402 | $24.95 | April 2011

There's a central mystery to Timothy Schaffert's new novel, The Coffins of Little Hope - a mystery about a remote farm, a single mother of questionable reputation, and a missing daughter. The question of whether that mystery is satisfactorily resolved at the end of the book is merely a matter of deciding for yourself on which side of the literary novel / smart mystery divide the book falls.

Two presiding literary spirits hover over the proceedings - Myrtle Kingsley Fitch (a legendary prairie author from the last century, a variation on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her legacy, with its preserved homesite run as a museum dedicated to her memory) and Wilton Muscatine (the still-living but reclusive author of a legendary 10 book series of novels for young readers, decades in the writing, now about to come to its conclusion in the long-awaited Book 11).

And yes, living humans fill these pages, normal small-town Americans dealing with the usual truckload of hope and patience, struggle and disappointment that seems to be our nation's due these days. The novel is narrated by 82-year-old S. Myles, not really short for anything, but she goes by "S Myles" in her profession as small-town-paper obit writer. Her family calls her Essie.

The newspaper is owned by her grandson, Doc, who's trying to live up to the example of his deceased father, who ran the paper for decades. Essie and her grandson Doc have been raising Doc's niece, Tiff, since his sister ran off to Paris in search of love and a closer connection to Myrtle Kingsley Fitch.

Doc's newspaper printing plant is also the top-secret location where Muscatine's final novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, is being printed. Daisy, the mother of missing Lenore, has been working in the printing plant and seems to have been sneaking pages of Muscatine's book out of work.

Essie and Tiff investigate the circumstances of the missing Lenore, sometimes to the annoyance of the crowd of well-wishers and tragedy mavens who have flocked to the comfort and assistance of Daisy. When Daisy begins reading chapters of what seems to be The Coffins Of Little Hope and broadcasting them by shortwave radio, it draws the attention of Wilton Muscatine himself.

Complications and connections abound - the threads draw together, pulling the town and its hovering spirits in a web of wondering and an ever-increasing awareness of the world changing right in front of us.

I read this book in a growing state of appreciation for the high-wire act Schaffert was attempting to pull off - small town changes, missing daughters, spunky but still aging little old ladies, two completely different literary cult figures, and looming over it all, the question of what makes love work between two people and what makes a family.  I loved it.

Booksellers: Seek out a galley immediately.  (Here's a link to the NetGalley page for the book.)

The rest of you? The Coffins of Little Hope comes out in April.

(The usual disclaimer applies: Unbridled Books is one of the publishers I represent, and yep, I'm biased about these guys. I'd love it if you all would go buy a copy.)


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