Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian
As epigraphs go, Chris Bohjalian couldn’t have chosen better (as if we would expect any less), not only for the words, but for the poet who originated the verses: “Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things, / feel the future dissolve in a moment / like salt in a weakened broth,” from Naomi Shihab Nye‘s “Kindness.” Like Bohjalian who is hapa Armenian American, Nye is hapa Palestinian American; both share a heritage marked by violence and survival. Both are prolific in their mediums; both are intense, sharp, humane observers of everyday lives around them. Whether or not they know each other, novelist and poet surely seem to understand each other well: somehow Nye’s poem manages to encapsulate Bohjalian’s 450-page novel (or 16.5 hours stuck in the ears, patiently albeit unremarkably narrated by Susan Denaker) into just four spare lines. Now that’s some sort of synergistic compatibility.
Welcome to the Seton summer house in bucolic New Hampshire, where three generations gather annually. First, the cousins, Charlotte and Willow, arrive for a week alone with their widowed matriarch grandmother Nan. Then the girls’ parents – Spencer and Catherine McCullough who belong to Charlotte, and John and Sara Seton who belong to Willow and her baby brother Patrick – all converge. But this visit, their 11th summer together, is literally shattered: Spencer is shot by his daughter Charlotte with brother-in-law John’s rifle. He survives, but his right arm will never recover.
Spencer happens to be the frequent-TV-show-hopping communications director for an extreme animal rights activist group named (!) FERAL. Unbeknownst to the extended family, John has recently taken up hunting, but he’s had some trouble unloading the last bullet from his rifle. While he keeps the weapon locked away at home, for some reason, it was in the back of the car for the drive to New Hampshire. In the mere minutes Willow takes to bring the extra diapers from the Volvo’s trunk into the house, Charlotte shoots the rifle … and hits her father who is out by the precious, prized vegetable garden, frustrated at being ransacked by marauding deer.
What was initially a non-violent man vs. deer-battle over kohlrabi escalates into a legal frenzy that strains and tears at family bonds. FERAL usurps the tragic accident as a supreme opportunity to build a powerful anti-gun campaign. Blinded by his own suffering, Spencer refuses to acknowledge the damage he’s about to inflict on his already agonizing daughter and utterly repentant brother-in-law. As the media circus gains momentum, the one detail that the adults never suspect is that Charlotte and Willow, just 12 and 10 respectively, had spent the few hours before the accident on the beach … drinking beer and smoking pot.
As usual, Bohjalian proves his ability to cleverly weave a myriad of narrative threads – a marriage in crisis, a grandmother who is a denial expert par excellence, a tween desperate to grow up too fast, a high-power lawyer who bemoans the loss of her comfortable leather chair, the privileged son fulfilling his noblesse oblige expectations, even the traumatizing power of dying lobsters. [If I had one teeny tiny quibble, I might question the existence of a fast-food burger joint walkable within three blocks of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, but it’s been a while since I’ve been in those there parts.]
Bohjalian has figured out just the right mix of social statement (“it seemed to take more imagination for humans to identify with animal suffering than it did to conceive of space flight or cloning or nuclear fusion”) and farce (concern that 9/11 might someday “become an excuse for retail sales bonanzas the way Washington’s Birthday and Memorial Day had”), to create another timely, convincing family drama. You know these people, right?