A family digs into an unsolved murder 67 years later, unearthing more than they/we imagined (Washington, DC 2008 back to 1941 northern Wisconsin): Imagination dominates More News Tomorrow, Susan Richards Shreve’s cunning fifteenth novel. Dropping seductive literary breadcrumbs bit by bit, the reader is drawn into an elusive, gothic-like tale larger than what we imagined it to be: a murder mystery.
Imaginative is one way to describe the captivating, unconventional life and career of the daring main character, Georgianna Grove. A cultural anthropology professor noted for studying the Baos tribe of Botswana, her doctoral thesis examined what it means to “sacrifice individual needs in order to belong to a larger whole.” A feisty woman who walks the talk, she imagined and created a home that honored her premise “to make a home, you need a tribe.”
After her husband was killed in Vietnam, Georgie purchased the defunct Home for the Incurables in Washington, DC believing “if we were to gather people together who do not belong to each other, wouldn’t that be an act of hope”? A young widow with two children and one on the way – Nicholas, Rosie, Venus – she raised them along with “89 strangers since 1968.” Shreve reinvents this historical home, which reinvented itself multiple times over a century.
Just as the anthropologist’s aim is to “peel away the layers of the past,” Georgie’s story – the plot – is aimed at uncovering the truth about what really happened in 1941 when her mother Josie was murdered in a remote boy’s camp in the wilds of northern Wisconsin. Run by her father William, he confessed to the crime, died in prison four years later.
As that eerie story dramatically unfolds, another gradually peels away hidden layers from a different past – racial, anti-Semitic, and immigrant animus – we can imagine triggered violence in the forties, and has had lasting influences on Georgie and her “original” family.
Parental impact on their children’s lives endures and stirs. As Georgie goes searching for answers, we see how the mystery of her parents has played out on her life, and will play out on the lives of her three adult children and their three children, Thomas, Jesse, Oona.
The novel opens with two plot-driving letters. One Georgie received after her father’s death in 1945, planting seeds of hope and imagination, writing “what you’ve been told is not the whole story. There will be more news tomorrow.” The second letter arrives on Georgie’s 70th birthday, when the novel opens, inviting her to the camp, raising hopes tomorrow has finally come.
Thomas, Georgie’s precocious and imaginative thirteen-year-old grandson, shares center stage with this matriarch. He’s her sidekick, her soul mate, her staunchest defender. He’s been living with Georgie and his mother, Rosie, the older of Georgie’s two daughters, for the past two years. Venus, her Tarot-reading younger daughter, is a minor character, though her offbeat choice of fortune-telling reinforces the imagination theme. It’s also consistent with the strangeness of Georgie’s “very strange” plan to relive the past to get to the bottom of a double tragedy that’s resurfaced decades later.
Thomas is the one who’ll grab your heart and squeeze it. Wise beyond his years, gifted and sensitive, most notably depicted in four, interspersed chapters titled The Memoirs of Thomas Davis (for publication).
Rosie thinks the summer assignment is ridiculous since Thomas is still at an age when “nothing has happened.” Georgie disagrees, saying “childhood has happened.”
Thomas’ memoirs serve two purposes – one for him and one for us. He hopes Georgie’s planned trip, dubbed “Planned Coincidences,” will be the vehicle for telling a tall tale his classmates will envy, ending the bullying that started after he lost his father and developed a stutter. Oh, how we ache for this sweet boy, abandoned by death and then because he’s different. Thomas is so smart, speaks like an adult, but he doesn’t want to go to school anymore. Injustice, the cruelty of childhood bullying, like all the subtle prose, sends powerful messages.
Georgie may be courageous, but the discovery journey she’s concocted, including dragging most of her family along, is crazy. A heroine, but this chilling “reenactment” trip will put her loved ones at risk.
Everyone is supposed to arrive at the notorious camp on the exact month and day Georgie lost her parents. We begin to sense history repeating itself, starting with vulnerable ages. Georgie lost her parents at four; her son Nicholas lost his father at four. In 2008, it might be his four-year-old daughter Oona’s turn. Something sinister is lurking in the ghostly Wisconsin chapters.
Coincidences build suspensefully as Georgie insists her crew replicate the same mode of transport William, Josie, and she took, paddling up the mighty Bone River to arrive at the camp by canoe. Yet all are novice canoeists, at best. They’re to be met by 77-year-old Roosevelt, who wrote the invitational letter that also said he’s the only person alive who was at the camp in ‘41, opening Pandora’s box.
Thomas’ intermittent memoirs summarize and illuminate what we’ve been reading several chapters earlier. We’re glad to have them to confirm some details intentionally not spelled out. But when we reach the last pages of his memoirs – the ending – meant to clarify the murder, this time we’re not so sure we have all the news we need. Thomas’ conclusion adheres to Georgie’s: “Imagination is the truth.” The reader must decide whether to trust that, or feel cleverly deceived by this crafty novel.
Nicholas is the character whose voice sets the edgy, atmospheric, suspicious tone versus Georgie’s confidence and Thomas’ trust. He speaks for the rest of the family who unwillingly went on the trip. His antsy, disinterested fifteen-year-old son Jesse is present but not his wife, who has a legitimate reason not to be there as she’s acting in Othello at the Folger Theatre, a DC landmark dedicated to all things Shakespeare, dropping more subtle clues.
Nicholas also has a justifiable excuse for not going as he’s being taken away from his campaign duties working for presidential candidate Barack Obama, again tinging the prose with hope, only to bump up against our racial history. Alarm bells keep sounding off about history repeating itself.
While there’s not much more news I can give you without spoiling the mystery, a few other things to consider:
Josie’s parents were anti-Semitic. So was the camp in ‘41 with its sign declaring “No dogs. No Jews.”
Note William was Jewish. He left his small, tight-knit village in Lithuania (again, community matters) when Europe was a hotbed of anti-Semitism, coming to America to live with his uncle Irving in Boston. Soon after, he learned his mother died. Again, a profound family loss, this time for a lonely immigrant known to have a temper, though apparently softened by a mother-figure: Irving’s beautiful black cook, Clementine, Roosevelt’s mother. She too then was at Camp Minnie Ha Ha in 1941.
Clementine is wonderfully depicted non-stereotypically: an educated black woman who attended Spelman College. The author, like Georgie, is highly-educated: professor of creative writing at George Mason University outside of DC, founder of its MFA program (see https://susanshreve.com/bio for more). Might three educated women be suggesting that a well-informed citizenry could help overcome or tone down long-held prejudices borne out of a lack of understanding? Will we ever feel connected to one universal tribe?
“Georgie has a way of making everything possible,” says Thomas. So maybe you too will believe in the novel’s imagined truth.