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Book Review: 'Old Newgate Road'

Who knew that until the middle of the last century, East Granby, Connecticut, was a center for Connecticut Shade, a hand-tended tobacco leaf used as a wrapper for premium cigars? And that the work, which relied a lot on summer migrants, many students from the South, once included Martin Luther King? Keith Scribner knew because he spent a lot of time in East Granby when he was young, and he knows that growing and harvesting tobacco is a back-breaking chore. That he makes this dying industry the backdrop for a tale about generational domestic violence in his new book, “Old Newgate Road,” is inspired.

It’s thirty years since Cole Callahan, an environmentally sensitive and successful architect, escaped from East Granby to the West Coast. As the novel opens, Cole, now 45, has returned to the Connecticut Valley to meet a colleague who’s arranging a shipment for him of American chestnut wood. He takes the occasion to drive to his former home on Old Newgate Road. The house is a white colonial dating to 1780 which Cole and his father, mother and siblings had begun painstakingly to restore decades earlier, but never finished. Gruesome facts emerge. The reader learns that Cole’s father beat his mother to death in a murderous rage in that house, the last of many beatings the children witnessed in terror but could not or did not know how to stop. Cole was 15 at the time. The eldest of the children. His father was sent to prison, and Cole and his brother and sister were taken in by an uncle and supported through school by his maternal grandmother, a distant, aristocratic, sharp-tongued alcoholic who never spoke of that awful night.

As Cole approaches his old home, however, he hears a piano. It’s his father, repeatedly playing Brahms, wrong notes and all. Cole did not know that his father had been released from prison and was living in the filthy and dilapidated house, still trying to restore it. He has dementia.

Cole decides to stay on for a bit, seeing what he can do to get his father into a home and perhaps sort out his own problems. He’s estranged from his wife back in Portland whom he loves, and is unable to connect with his brilliant adolescent son, Daniel, who has just been expelled from school. It’s summer. Maybe Daniel could come to East Granby for a few weeks and work on harvesting the tobacco. Maybe Liz, Cole’s old girlfriend, now married, can help. Maybe Liz’s nephew, the same age as Daniel, can provide a sense of normalcy, even though Liz’s lowlife brother is also a violent abuser. A lot of maybes. Can there ever be redemption, reclamation? As Cole knows, on TV abusive men are usually mean drunks, but Cole’s father barely drank. He could, however, be ignited by sudden rage when his wife would go at him that he wasn’t rich or professionally successful. 

Keith Scribner’s achievement in this compelling narrative is to explore generational domestic violence with such realistic dialogue and minute, telling, sensual details as if to invoke the eerie feeling that the reader is an on-the-scene witness. And thus, like Cole, is confronted with key questions: Where does such dry drunk rage come from? How much do nature and nurture play in fueling brutality?

This is a timely, disturbing but well-written book. An acknowledgment of hard physical labor in rural America. And, implicitly, of the hard work necessary to stop cycles of violence.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.