Perhaps it is the relative ease, beauty, and quiet of the Berkshires—just the right remedy away from noisy New York and Boston…even Salem and Concord—that inspires writers. But certainly beginning in the 19th century through today Berkshire writers have had a consuming fascination with the mystery of place and how natural beauty and a closely hewn society are able to create the illusion of good in the presence of brooding evil. Elizabeth Brundage’s psychological thriller, Someone Else’s Daughter, is no different.
Choosing an actual town in the Berkshires as the novel’s backdrop nudges the reader, temporarily, to think about other authors who have located their stories in this terrain or who have come here to write. Edith Wharton’s dark novel, Ethan Frome, Melville’s Moby Dick or The Whale, and Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales are three that come to mind, all writers whom Brundage alludes to in passing. The preponderance of writers who have lived and still do live and write in Berkshire County has remained constant but recent books rarely carry the weight of building blocks of the American narrative. Ms. Brundage who owns a house here knows the southern part of the county inside and out and utilizes its mores, underlife, and natural landscape brilliantly.
The novel takes place in present-day Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a predominantly affluent cultural mecca, with a long history in Americana. Elizabeth (“Mumbet”) Freeman won her freedom in Stockbridge, the case instrumental in making slavery illegal in Massachusetts as early as 1783. Norman Rockwell drew almost everyone in town for his Saturday Evening Post covers in the 1940s and 1950s, occasionally depicting inequalities within the democracy, but more often making sure that on the surface Americans are a happy lot. In the novel, the buildings of the town appear to be very much as they did one hundred years ago; painted clapboard houses, where large families once lived, still exuding that stern look of steadiness and propriety. The novel, however, omits daily doses of a Puritanical God.
In Elizabeth Brundage’s 21st century Stockbridge, like the rest of the country, individual freedoms are construed as rights, their limits and enforcement up for grabs.Caught in the overflow of too much of everything, the town is depicted as being awash in excess or neglect—including the rich and the down and out. Scandal and careless prurience are left for the most part for the perpetrator to handle, which one can do relatively easily if one has money, class, or power. The past sometimes appears indirectly in references to earlier narratives involving town scandals (there is a compassionate young girl in trouble with sex and drugs named Pearl reminiscent of The Scarlet Letter). However, the one major difference between the 1700s and 1800s and present day in this New England town is the acceptance and contagion of violent behavior.
For the county’s hometown folk and even visitors to the Berkshires, the author’s use of landmarks is a whodunit in itself, even with the disclaimer that people, incidents, and locales are fictitious. What the author keeps in the landscape—a high percentage of places, and some names, are recognizable–and what she shades or modifies for purposes of the plot strengthens, it seems, her control of the landscape and of place. Laying out the somewhat familiar road map in such precise detail reinforces the tension and the history of the place. Fiction is never entirely made up.And Somebody Else’s Daughter is not just any thrown-together fabrication; the story is powerful because the landscape is familiar; its details are carefully selected, substantiated, and truthfully conveyed.
The story involves an academic year at Pioneer, a prep school, thought of by parents as a nearly perfect place and considered safe. Parents don’t have to worry about their children if they’re at Pioneer. The school has been run for the past seven years by a model headmaster, Jack Heath and his wife, Maggie. We learn early on, however, that the Heaths’ life outside of school in a small disheveled house on the 350-acre campus is a complicated fabrication, with none of the moral order and discipline they preach during the school day. Their life together is wearing thin for each of them, and bits of their past are beginning to unravel, leaked in small shots as the book moves on.
The Heaths are the link to all the characters in the novel, which include several students, the students’ parents, a teacher, and several people outside the school existing on the margins of the town. Starting off as distinct groups, the characters split off and cross paths, form temporary configurations, like moving electrons, hunting for love, sex, excitement, vindication—the adults as much out for escape and adventure as the high school students and the townies. However, there is one important difference: these adults have authority and a record of experience—often an exploitative one. The adolescents, especially the young girls, for all their desire for waywardness and adventure are still somewhat in innocent girlhood and do not know what they want.
The author ups the ante step by step, and as the hunting goes on, traps become more dangerous particularly when characters veer off on their own. By the end of the novel, the hunt is over, adults and youth, some now tagged victim and predator, are either realigned within a relationship and group or are gone.
The daughter of the novel’s title is Willa Golding, a junior at Pioneer, poised, pretty, the only child and adopted daughter of Joe and Candace Golding. The Goldings are wealthy benefactors of Pioneer—Jewish, not natives of Stockbridge—and carry their own eroding secrets and struggles. However, they do agree on their love for Willa who has in a way legitimized their acceptance in the community.Willa has been with the Goldings since she was three months old and does not know who her father is and has no interest in knowing. Her life up to this year has been guarded, comfortable, and safe.
The teacher, Nate Gallagher, is newly hired to teach writing and is a friend of Maggie Heath’s from years before when they were both students at a Connecticut preparatory school. Of note, Nate is Willa’s birth father and has come to town to observe his daughter whom he has not seen or communicated with since he delivered her to the Goldings—in a moment of clarity, he has come to teach but also to make sure Willa is all right.
Until his arrival in Stockbridge, Nate has been isolated from any social network. He has been in recovery from heavy drugs which also claimed the life of his wife, Willa’s birth mother, and has become a published writer. As the new person with no history in the town and someone who sees and can make judgments about what he sees, he is aware from day one that the school’s supposed elite progressive atmosphere is not as advertised.
Nate becomes a friend of Claire’s, a sculptor, a feminist, a single mother, who like some of the other characters is trying to start over; in this case, establish a more peaceful, creative life for herself and her teenage son, Teddy. She has returned to Stockbridge to live in her estranged, now deceased, father’s house.
Teddy, raised in an urban setting, brings disorderly, druggy, imaginative freewheeling habits into Pioneer and in no time is the most popular kid in the junior class.Willa is enamored immediately and she accompanies him everywhere—to the other world of Stockbridge:graveyard parties, high stake poker games, and heavy drugs. He easily finds his way around.
By the end of the novel, the school and presumably the reputation of the town has been blown apart—the type of undoing to which a townsperson looking on might utter: “Nothing like this ever happens here.”
Ms. Brundage flushes out the plot through several points of view. The women—Maggie, Willa, and Claire—have more to say, are more observant and astute, and their inner lives more fully realized than the men characters with the exception of Nate. They see their situation in varying degrees of clarity and yet even with a certain amount of astuteness, they struggle against being trapped by people they are attached to who do not value them.
Willa at 16 seems unusually sophisticated when talking with adults, at times almost too poised. While Ms. Brundage has fully developed these characters, her own voice occasionally enters theirs, and the characters lose their individual voices. Brundage is very thorough in reaching into the underbelly of the town—and puncturing its historic, idyllic reputation. The town’s succumbing to greed, porn, drug addiction, alcoholism, class warfare, assault, prostitution, and murder may seem a stretch overblown, but relevant as a microcosm of what rural small town America in 2000 is faced with.
And this is a psychological thriller after all. It’s just a story. But the prevalence of drugs and predators are real and believable and reinforce what we occasionally wonder about and what we read in the paper.I have to admit that the students at Pioneer, their choice for numbing out and withdrawal, even with some clearing out at the end, made me wonder with sadness at how trapped and cloudy their futures might be and to what degree they are typical of today’s students.
Because Ms. Brundage is such an accomplished writer, I wished at times that she had explored at greater depth the infiltration of place by these unbridled appetites, stronger forces than even the Puritans had to contend with. There are many possible stories to pursue here, and I hope she has not finished her investigations.