This is quite an impressive debut novel once you get past the baroque and rather rattletrap plot. It starts with a bang or, rather, several. In the winter of 1897 three men approach an isolated house in upstate New York and, within a minute or so, kill four young children and their father. The fifth child, 12-year-old Caleb, manages to hide in a closet. After a silence, he hears footsteps. Fearing the killers have returned, he opens the door and fires his rifle, to find he has gravely wounded his mother, Elspeth, returning from her job as a midwife.

He tends to her until she recovers, in the meantime burning his siblings' bodies and in the process torching the house. And we're only 40 pages into the book!

Elspeth feels the deaths are a punishment for her sins. She got her children in a novel way, by kidnapping them as infants from their parents. But Caleb resolves to follow the killers, who took off in the direction of the nearest town, Watersbridge. Elspeth joins him, disguised as a man. They trudge, endlessly it seems, though in fact only for a month, through a desolate, wintry landscape. Here the novelist comes into his own. His descriptions of nature and his ability to reveal two complex, tormented people are what make the book live and even sing, albeit a mournful, heartbroken music.

They are taken in for a few days by a kindhearted couple who tell them the fireplaces are sealed up to keep out lost souls. When they arrive in Watersbridge, Elspeth, still in men's clothing, takes a job cutting and hauling ice from Lake Erie. Caleb finds work as a sweeper and sheet-washer at the notorious brothel/hotel, the Elmo Inn. The dapper owner takes a shine to him; he befriends a young prostitute, and he tries to get used to the occasional body flung into the snow. The book settles into their town lives, the killers seemingly forgotten, although Caleb figures they'll turn up eventually at the inn. A man named Martin Shane believes that Caleb is his long-lost nephew, adding to the boy's existential crisis.

As if suddenly remembering the initial revenge plot, James Scott rushes through the final pages of the book, setting up a showdown between Caleb, Elspeth and the killers. A not very satisfactory motive supposedly led them to kill Caleb's family. The novel's end is as bloody as its beginning. But Scott is a wonderful stylist and portraitist, so I look forward to his second, and I hope less histrionic, book.

Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.