Before We Sleep by Jeffrey Lent
Little kids ask, “Why?” Teenagers also question, but the difference is that teenagers often try to find the answers themselves. Katey Snow is 17 years old, about to leave home for college in Vermont on a free ride as the valedictorian of her high school class. She has found a cache of Christmas cards hidden in a shoebox in her mother’s closet, and wants to know who and why, but she never asks. Instead, she embarks on a voyage to discover the man who wrote the cards and learn his significance to her family.
Jeffrey Lent’s Before We Sleep is told from the perspective of Katey and her mother, a teacher in her school. Their stories are generally straightforward, however, one salient criticism lies in their exhaustive backstories. They have such a rich family history, Lent is frequently drawn toward too much detail. He spends more than a page detailing what was for sale after World War II at Katey’s grandfather’s general store: footwear, clothes, skillets, apple peelers, Flexible Flyers, hunting rifles and clothes, canned goods, candy, bolts of cloth, and a “twenty-pound round of sharp cheddar.” The list goes on.
Following his remarkable novel A Slant of Light, Lent has built upon and exceeded the strengths he revealed with that book. While A Slant of Light employed the elements of soap opera with its multitudinous plot lines and hyperbolized characters, Before We Sleep finds a more relatable story, particularly so in the lives of people who would be contemporaries of this reviewer. It is a story of mothers and daughters, men and war, and the intersection of those lives. Generational conflicts between the Greatest Generation and their children (we Baby Boomers who became teenagers in the 60s) are examined, familiarly, in the story of one family. “He writes of people I might well know, probably do. How much art is in that, I ask,” Katey’s grandmother once said of Robert Frost. Lent, however, shows us where the art is.
Katey’s journey of discovery becomes an Odyssean voyage in Lent’s deft hands. She slips quietly away from home in her father’s pickup truck and travels here and there as she encounters obstacles on the way to her goal. From Vermont to Maine to Southern Virginia, Lent creates a visceral sense of place that reveals a Romantic empathy with nature. When she sees the ocean for the first time, Katey “could now see…a sheet of lemon light down upon far distant waters and she felt the great joy of being in a place she’d always dreamed and now, here, found it to be as complicated and beautiful as all her life and she thought this was how it should be.”
The characters she meets along the way are as memorable as those Odysseus met. Ernst Behr is a former German soldier who now runs a food store. A natural philosopher, he helps Katey begin to understand that her father tells his story in music. Her father Oliver, a veteran of World War II, reconstructs fiddles in his workshop isolated from his family, rebuilding his life through the fiddles because “Music [is] a language of the soul….” Ernst, a former Nazi, brings an aura of peace and reconciliation. Yet, in the same store, Katey meets Phoebe, a hippie who lives in a remote area. She joins them briefly and encounters great difficulty, revealing that peace and love are not always what they seem to be. Katey, however, remains focused on her journey.
She does find Brian Potter, the writer of the Christmas cards and a man whose life was saved by Katey’s father during the war. She learns the answers to her questions as Brian takes her on a trip across his farm in Southern Virginia and reveals what Katey needs to know. Lent, who lives in Vermont, shows his ability to capture the language and feel of a place. He describes suckering tobacco, the difference between a tenant farmer and a sharecropper, and notes that real pork barbeque must be pit-cooked. Colloquial phrases, such as “screwed tight as a lid on a jam jar” or “Damn Yankee” (I was twelve before I realized this last was two words) were common. Lent gets the language exactly right.
Before We Sleep is a fine story, poetically told. It is fiction, but it may well be a story that has been told all too often in families.