LARRY KIMPORT’S SECOND NOVEL, A Small Harvest of Pretty Days, is a letter from a time, way of life, and mode of storytelling that evokes the best of turn-of-the-century Americana easily sentimentalized in lesser hands. But Kimport manages to transport us to 1890’s Pennsylvania with relatively little overt façade; he taps the reservoir of this lost world in his first few paragraphs and offers a page-turner of a novel as gripping as it is harrowing. What Kimport does so well is what the great novelist constantly referenced in his book Mark Twainbecame the first American master of: characterization. Kimport’s narrator and protagonist, Clara Waltz, is as rich and subtle a heroine as any of the myriad folk Twain so precisely drew as to carve them onto our collective consciousness. Indeed, it is impossible not to talk about Kimport and Twain in the same breath in the context of this book, because Huck Finn, Twain’s greatest character of all, becomes an actual, indeed central, player in its pages.
At its heart, A Small Harvest of Pretty Days is a murder mystery in period dress. Narrated through the confessional prism of time, the book opens with Clara being followed by a couple of “brutish looking” men on “our frozen road to Montoursville,” another of the small, conservative lumber towns that dotted the Susquehanna Valley. One of the men participated in a brutal gang-rape of Clara a decade before, a rape that resulted in Clara’s conceiving twins, one of whom she lost in birth, and the other, her daughter Emma who has since accompanied her in her life of marginalization, menial labor, and shame.
For after her rape, Clara did not go quietly about her business as the mores of her time wanted her to do, but leveled her finger directly at her attackers, some of whom were upstanding and prosperous members of the community. Instead of coming together to bring Clara justice, the people of the valley did to Clara what the people of Puritan Boston did to Hester Prynne: they placed the blame on her.
Kimport has a gift for action, and the bodies pile up quickly. The first to go is a horse, its neck cut open by a stranger’s knife, and the second is its rider Clara’s principle attacker, Horace Wills killed and stuffed through a hole in the river ice. Clara, hiding at the roadside during these events, manages to witness the face of the man exacting revenge upon her enemies: the aging Hank Finley, an itinerant laborer who has recently drifted into the area, and who circumstance and suspicion begin to hint to Clara may in fact be the legendary Huckleberry Finn. Both Clara and Hank become prime suspects in the mounting murders, and their constant persecution by the area constables brings them together to the very precipice of love. When a traveling circus comes to town with, as the barker boasts, “[T]he grown-up man of Huckleberry Finn!! And his most faithful, most true companion, the Nigger Jim!!” among its cast, the novel reaches its boiling point, and what Clara and reader both must know “Is Hank Finley really Huck Finn?”is revealed in a dramatic twist that even Mark Twain couldn’t have penned. A dark and brooding book that meditates on love in those years beyond youth and illusion, A Small Harvest of Pretty Days will satisfy readers fascinated with a culture, historical period, and most importantly a morality that exacted its bitter social punishment on those least deserving of any punishment at all.
Tony D’Souza, a current Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of Whiteman and The Konkans. He lives in far northern California, where he is a reporter for the Mt. Shasta Herald. His website is www.tonydsouza.com.