The Bookshelf: A Story About Two Pairs Of Sister Years Apart

May 24, 2019

Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

In a small New Hampshire community two sisters, Henrietta and Jane, grow up under the shadow of a folk tale about the ruins of a house near their own. The house, more than a century earlier, was the home of a family of five who, legend has it, were transformed into coyotes. 

This folk tale serves as the thread between Henrietta and Jane's story and that of another pair of sisters with a connection to the house as it stood long ago. Such is the story unfolding in author Abi Maxwell's second novel The Den. Maxwell spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello about her new novel on The Bookshelf.

Read Abi Maxwell's Top 5 Reading Recommendations:

1. Runaway by Alice Munro. She is the writer I turn to again and again, and this is the first book I read by her, so it remains my favorite. Her storytelling is so gripping, her characters so complex, and she never pulls any tricks.

2. Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. So breathless and beautiful, incredible in form and also in their examination of women's internal lives. I haven't even read the last one yet--I read these books best when I can do nothing else for a few days, so I'm waiting for summer to finally read the last.  

3. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. I love Lahiri's clear, exquisite sentences, plus of course her stories. When I read this one, I reacted strongly to a decision a mother character made, and my best friend said, "Would you ever have responded that way if it had been a father and not a mother who made the decision?" The answer was of course no. An excellent book to force you to think about your bias, plus so much more. 

4. Orlando by Virginia Woolf. I love when I read a classic novel and see that what I think of as current is actually just human. This one is gender and genre bending, and just so incredible. 

5. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. My favorite that I've read recently. Incredible storytelling, adventure, and history, and a book that asks so many questions about our history and our present time, and about form itself. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So you write about Henrietta and Jane in almost present day, and you write about another set of sisters Elspeth and Claire in the mid-19th century. What made you want to write about sisters?

I don't think that I was conscious of wanting to do that when I began. I just began with this image of one of the sisters, Henrietta, who was this larger-than-life girl who gets herself into a lot of trouble and is really judged harshly by society. And her sister is watching her and has a totally different personality and is so enamored of her. So it began with that without any real desire to write about sisters, it just sort of happened. And then at a certain point, I ended up backing up to find out the legend you mentioned to find out the truth of that legend and the sisters appeared again. But I don't know that it was conscious.

Henrietta and Jane had this place in the woods. This old house called "The Den." Did you have a place like "The Den" while you were growing up in the Lakes Region?

Yes and no. A lot of the places in this book in the woods are sort of like landmarks that I did have in my mother's woods. We had this big rock in the woods that we would spend time at. And then there was a well in my mother's woods and also a dumping pit that didn't have any present day trash in it -- but an old dumping pit. I would spend a lot of time in the woods at those places. Then in terms of an actual foundation in the woods, I think just if you spend a lot of time in New England woods there are a lot of foundations. But that wasn't literally in my life. But I always was so interested in going to those foundations and thinking, 'Who lived here? What were the circumstances of this life?'

One of the things that struck me about this book -- I really liked this aspect of it -- it was the sense that very commonplace things, if mishandled, can become very, very dangerous. I'm thinking of Jane burning down the barn with her cigarette. You know, you can smoke, but be careful you don't burn things down. And also to a larger degree, sex, right? It's part of everybody's life, for the most part, but misused or in the wrong context can really destroy your life, and that's kind of what happened here. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you managed to make sort of ordinary things so dangerous.

For one, I think that just writing fiction I often think like, 'Okay, what's the worst thing that can happen here?' Like we've got this situation and these people and something has to go wrong so that we can see the story of how do people move forward from there. But then with this book specifically, in terms of the sex, when I was writing this book I was pregnant and then had my first child -- my only child -- and was spending a lot of time during the writing of this talking with my husband about the patriarchy and just about sexism and all these things that I had never really stopped and fully considered before I had my child.

What was it about becoming a mother that made you suddenly start to think about this stuff?

I had always identified as a feminist. I'd taken feminism courses in college, but I had never really considered what a woman gives up in her body and in her mind in order to have and raise a child, which seems absurd to me now that I hadn't really thought of that. So my husband and I were having all these conversations and then I would go to write and we would continue to have these conversations and I thought all along, 'I wish that some of this could go into this book that I'm working on.'

But I thought it would have to wait, and then it wasn't really until the book was complete that my editor pointed out to me that I had written a book in which society responds to the sexual transgressions of women in the middle of the eighteen hundreds in the same way as they do in present day. In literature, we so often see what happens to girls and women for their sexual transgressions -- they die. Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina -- it goes on and on. So I wanted to write a story in which there was some other possibility for these women in some sense of freedom, but the characters in this book, it's not like they're free of society. I mean society still punishes them. But up until the point of punishment, I also wanted to create girls who somehow have not internalized any of the shame or messages around self-worth that girls so often get.