Desperate lives in a chilling tale

  • Article by: KATHRYN SAVAGE , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2009 - 1:06 PM

This reissue of David Rhodes' 1974 novel is a tale of family shame and tragedy.

The Easter House by David Rhodes

David Rhodes published three acclaimed novels during the 1970s. Then, in 1977, a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed, stalling his rapid literary ascent. Last fall, "Driftless," Rhodes' first work of fiction in 33 years, satisfied those wondering if he'd ever publish again. Now, Milkweed Editions is re-releasing Rhodes' 1974 novel, "The Easter House."

"The Easter House" is a painstakingly rendered story of family shame, murder and redemption set in rural Iowa. It is the palpable descriptions throughout this novel that bring three generations of the Easter family to life.

An eerie foreboding encases the Easter house in the way that awful events can become linked to their location. Ansel Easter, the family patriarch, once a well liked preacher, is brutally murdered after returning home from a carnival sideshow with a morbid Caliban-like creature. After his death, his sons C and Sam Easter leave town to begin life anew.

Iowa's drastic weather patterns, sweeping landscape and the massive Easter house figure prominently throughout the story. Snowstorms, molasses drums, the aching creak of an ancient furnace infuse the plot with an often menacing undercurrent. Rhodes' novel is as much about setting as it is about the characters who inhabit such a place. Although this novel revolves around the Easter family, the townspeople are sharply and succinctly rendered. An elegant and specific picture of the sorts of preoccupations and morality that inhabit the fictional Ontarion, Iowa, is conveyed throughout the chapters.

Years later, C and Sam independently return home. C and his wife, Cell, start a junkyard business in the yard and have a son. Sam gambles away his money and hitches a ride to the Easter house, newly warmed by his brother's family. Sundials, copper piping and bed frames are traded for groceries and provisions. Horseshoes are tossed on warm summer nights; neighbors stop by. Things are good, for now. But their father's haunting memory is palpable. Fear of becoming like him drives C and Sam, and the novel's central question becomes: Do the sons bear the sins of the father?

Rhodes' pendulum is always swinging. Cell's worry over her second son's refusal to speak mount to a state of perpetual delirium. Needing money to pay the mortgage, C and Sam start a business: The Associate -- a group of local men who will do odd jobs for hire. When a series of unexplained murders brings suspicion on The Associate, the Easters' lives are threatened. The concern throughout the remaining pages becomes: Will they survive?

Murder, secrecy, even the names -- C, Cell, The Associate -- lend a sur-real and peculiar air to bucolic Ontarion. The novel's peculiarities sometimes feel contrived, but more often, it is precisely Rhodes' ultra-real hand painting a tilted, mercurial world, that make this novel a success.

Kathryn Savage's work has appeared in the Village Voice, City Pages and Metro Magazine.

  • THE EASTER HOUSE

    By: David Rhodes.

    Publisher: Milkweed Editions, $15.

    Review: A strong sense of place -- from the Iowa landscape to the forbidding house where the Easter family lives -- pervades this novel of redemption.

    Events: 7 p.m. Oct. 16, Micawber's Books, 2238 Carter Av., St. Paul; Book Lovers' Ball, fundraiser for Milkweed Editions, 6 p.m. Oct. 17, Graves 601 Hotel, 601 1st Av. N., Mpls., $155. Tickets at www.milkweed.org/bookloversball.

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