Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One The boy, Gabriel, and his father stopped for the night somewhere north of Canton, Ohio. Around them, the land lay in one vast slab, the snow crust bright as water beneath the waxing moon. The nearest town was ten miles away, unincorporated, and there was nothing in between except a handful of farmhouses, Christmas lights burning in each front window; a few roads; fewer stop signs; a small white crossroads church. High above and out of harm's way were the cold, gleaming eyes of stars, and each one was so strangely iridescent that if a man in one of the farmhouses had risen for an aspirin or a glass of warm milk -- he could have been forgiven for waking his wife to tell her he'd seen-well, something. A glowing disk that swelled and shrank. A pattern of flashing lights. And she could have been forgiven, later, for telling people she'd seen something too as she'd stood by the bedroom window, sock-footed and shivering, her husband still pointing to that place in the sky.
But a wind came up in the early morning hours, scattering the stars and moon like winter seeds, so that by dawn the sky was empty, the color of a tin cup. It was the day before Christmas. The air had turned cold enough to make Gabriel's nostrils pinch together as he stood in the motel parking lot, listening to his father quote figures about the length of time human skin could be exposed to various temperatures.
"It's not like this is Alaska, kiddo," Shawn Carpenter said, clattering bright-yellow plastic plates and cups from the motel's kitchenette onto the floor of the station wagon. The old dog, Grumble, who was investigating the crushed snow around the dumpster, shuddered as if the sound had been gunshot.The previous day, she'd ridden on the floor between Gabriel's legs, her face at eye level with Gabriel's face, panting with motion sickness. There'd been nowhere else to put her. Behind the front seats, the space was packed with all the things that hadn't been sold or lost or left behind: clothing, cookbooks, a color TV, a neon-orange beanbag chair, snowshoes, a half-built dulcimer, two miniature lemon trees in large lemon-shaped pots, and Shawn's extensive butterfly collection, which was mounted on pieces of wood and enclosed behind glass plates. whenever she'd started barking crazily, they'd been forced to stop and let her outside. The last time, it had taken over an hour of whistling to coax her back.
Shawn peeled off one of his gloves and held his bare hand out toward Gabriel. "One one thousand," he said, counting out the seconds. "Two one thousand. Three one thousand."
They were on their way to Ambient, Wisconsin. An oily light spread toward them from the edge of the horizon, and now Gabriel could see I-77 in the distance, a thin gray line slicing through the snowy fields, unremarkable as a healed-over scar. A single car crept along it, and he imagined it lifting into the air as lightly as a cotton ball. He imagined it again. If you believed in something hard enough, if your faith was pure, you could make anything happen -- his fifth-grade teacher, Miss Welch, had told him that. Miss Welch was born again. Still the car kept moving at its careful speed, and Gabriel knew he must have doubted, and that was the only reason why the car kept dwindling down the highway to a point no brighter than a star.
"You see?" Shawn said, and he wriggled his fingers. "If this was Alaska, myhand would be frozen. If this was Alaska, we'd probably be dead."
Grumble had found a grease-stained paper bag. Her tail moved rapidly to and fro as if she believed something good was inside it. Yet Grumble wagged her tail just as energetically at snowplows and mailboxes, at the sound of canned laughter on TV, at absolutely nothing at all.
"A dog, on the other hand, is a survivor. Warm fur, sharp teeth. A survivor!" Shawn said, and he must have enjoyed the sound of that word because he said it again as they pulled out of the parking lot. Gabriel stared back at Grumble, hoping she would look up, hoping she would not. Then he faced front and kicked the plates and cups aside, making room for his feet against the vent. He pulled off one of his mittens and picked up a cup, which he held in front of his glasses. Peering through the oval handle, he watched the land compress to fit into that tiny space. "She'll find a nice family," Shawn assured him. "She'll forget all about us"
Noreen had been much harder to leave behind. Shawn still owed her money from the camper, which they'd bought with money she'd saved from years of work at a small insurance company. That was when they still had plans to travel cross-country-Noreen and Shawn, Noreen's son, Jeffy, and Gabriel -- to Arizona, where the weather stayed warm and dry. Noreen had a soft Southern accent that made the things she said seem original and true, and she knew how to do things like make biscuits from scratch. It had been five months since Shawn and Gabriel moved into her one-bedroom apartment in Fairmont, West Virginia, and sometimes, during that first charmed month, when it was too muggy to sleep, they'd taken their blankets ontothe tiny balcony and lain there beneath the stars, talking about the future -- even Jeffy, who was only four and didn't understand what anyone was saying. But the camper had brought one thousand dollars, money that would get them to Wisconsin and feed them until Shawn found work. He handed Gabriel the thick wad of fifties and hundreds, letting him feel its weight. "You'll have to help out with expenses for a while," he said. "A paper route, kiddo, how do you feel about that?"
Gabriel imagined slogging through the snowdrifts, dragging a wet bag of newspapers behind him. "Maybe I could work in a restaurant," he said, although he wasn't sure a ten-year-old could do that kind of thing, even if he was big-boned, the way people said.
"A paper route would be better for you -- exercise, fresh air, all that."
"OK," Gabriel said warily-was his father going to start in on his weight? -- but Shawn stuffed the money back into the deep pocket of his coat and turned on the radio. More soldiers were arriving in Saudi Arabia; aircraft carriers had moved into striking range of the Gulf. "Listen up, son," Shawn said. "There's going to be a war." The sun was gaining strength, bloodying the hoar-frost that clung to the shrubs and the tall wild grasses that poked up through the snow crust at the edges of the highway. They passed an intersection boasting the world's largest collection of rocks, a car dealership with its necklace of bright flags, a nursery selling Christmas trees beneath a yellow-and-white-striped tent. The land was flatter than any place Gabriel could imagine except, perhaps, heaven, with its shining streets of gold. Miss Welch had told the class all about heaven and Jesus Christ,and how, if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they would be filled with the power of God and could perform any miracle they wished.
In April 1991, in a little Wisconsin town about a hundred miles southwest of the town where I grew up, a misfit boy was kidnapped by a group of high school kids who, later, would testify they'd merely meant to frighten him, to drive him around for a while. Somehow they ended up at the rive, whooping and hollering on a two-lane bridge. Somehow the boy was shoved, he jumped, he slipped—acounts vary—into the icy water. The kids told police they never heard a splash; one reported seeing a brilliant flash of light. (Several people in the area witnessed a similar light, while others recalled hearing something "kind of like thunder.") All night, volunteers walked the river's edge, but it was dawn before the body was found in a barn a good mile from the bridge . . .
The owner of the barn had been the one to discover the body, and she said the boy's cheeks were rosy, his skin warm to the touch. A sweet smell hung in the air. "It was," she said "as if he were just sleeping." And then she told police she believed an angel had carried him there.
For years, it had been said that an angel lived in the river. Residents flipped coins into the water for luck, and a few claimed they had seen the angel, or known someone who'd seen it. The historical society downtown had a farmwife's journal, dated 1898, in which a woman described how an angel had rescued her family from a flood. Now, as the story of the boy's death spread, more people came forward with accounts of strange things that had happened on that night. Dogs had barked without ceasing till dawn; livestock broke free of padlocked barns. Someone's child crayoned a bridge and, above it, a wide-winged tapioca angel.
A miracle? A hoax? Or something in between? With acute insight and great compassion, A. Manette Ansay captures the inner life of a town and its residents struggling to forge a new identity in the face of a rapidly changing world.
A startling novel of secrets and faith in a small town.
About the Author
A. Manette Ansay grew up in rural Wisconsin one of sixty-seven cousins and more than two hundred second cousins in a large extended Catholic farming family. At thirty-six, she is the author of four highly acclaimed novels, including Midnight Champagne
, a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, and Vinegar Hill
, an Oprah's Book Club Selection, as well as Sister, River Angel
, and a collection of short stories, Read This and Tell Me What It Says
. She lives in New York City with her husband of eleven years, and is at work on another novel.