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  • Purple Prose
  • Jonathan Edward (bio)
Nathaniel Purple. F. D. Reeve. Voyage/Brigantine Media. 128 pages; paper, $13.95.

Nathaniel Purple is the latest novel by F. D. Reeve, author of more than thirty books of fine prose, poetry, criticism, and translation. Carefully constructed and elegantly written, this new work of fiction is set in the small bucolic town of Mercerville in southern Vermont, and narrated by eponymous Nathaniel—town librarian, regional historian, local fireman, and most of all, respected citizen. As local tour guide, the last of the venerable Purple family provides the moral voice to the unraveling of a complex tale that is anything but bucolic: "How peaceful our village looks, especially in these years after the Gulf War, but how wild the lives underneath and how easy for war to come again."

A long-standing feud between two old local families, the Andermans and the Sawyers, serves as backdrop to the unfolding of contemporary events. One day, Carl Anderman, a cranky dairy farmer who communes only with his prize cows and a fiery mutt, catches his daughter Donna and her boyfriend, Bernie Sawyer, in the hay mow. Although Carl shoots at the couple, he causes more damage to his family once he returns to the farmhouse. After a confrontation with wife Gertrude and his other daughter Judy, Judy slips, gashes her head, and requires stitches.

Some weeks later, Anderman then catches Gertrude and John Sawyer, Bernie's father, upstairs in bed. Red, the fiery mutt, rips into the intruder, and Carl thrashes him with the night table. After a badly injured eye and a hobbled knee (among other injuries), Sawyer soon needs surgery to alleviate the swelling of his brain. While convalescing, he pushes himself over a sixth-floor porch railing in despair.

In the aftermath of the savage beating and the suicide, the convivial optimism of Mercerville yields to anxious uncertainty. Throughout the novel, a motley crew of townsfolk serves as a Greek-like chorus to comment on the unfolding events. Whether at the small restaurant where locals gather for lunch or at the pub-like barn later in the day for drinks, or at the former Grange hall for dancing and cards on Saturday night, the world of mostly blue-collar men comes vividly alive. The lingering uncertainty, however, is so pervasive that it becomes palpable, almost haunting. The motley crew, including the narrator, soon gathers to reach a consensus. All quickly form a posse and head out to the Anderman barn to confront Carl. For the only time in the novel, the reader questions Nathaniel's wisdom in so willingly going along with the vigilante. But Reeve deftly foils any rush to judgment: the spirit of vengeance dissipates as soon as Judy Anderman answers the farmhouse door. The posse simply asks her to inform her father that they are looking for him.

This nagging injustice persists until Carl Anderman takes matters into his own hands. After ringing his barn with gasoline cans, he immolates his possessions and himself, sparing only his cows and dog, along with his wife's goats and calf. In a remarkable tour de force, Reeve brilliantly, poetically captures the demise of both a farmer and his feud, not only with a vexing clan, but also with a hardscrabble life. The site of the funeral pyre, now known as Cremation Hill, has been fully cleansed, like a Vermont twist to a Greek tragedy: "justice had finally been done. [Townsfolk] couldn't explain why, but they were satisfied that it had been."

Half of the Anderman cowherd winds up ironically in the Sawyer barn, and the other half is led almost triumphantly through the village in a scene that turns into the stuff of local legend. The widows of the two feuding men discover a common bond as aggrieved widows, and settle into the Anderman

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all that is left on Cremation Hill. As for Bernie Sawyer and Donna Anderman, they move into the old Sawyer house, a mile down the road. They soon plant apple trees and raise goats, including two apparently spared from the fire, and then...


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