Book Review: Nathaniel

My copy of the book.

Maybe stay away from the little house on the prairie in John Saul’s 1984 supernatural horror novel, Nathaniel. That’s right, I’m continuing my John Saul reading this year, and this one was another doozy.

In this book, Janet and her 11-year-old son Michael move to the Prairie Bend to be with her in-laws after her husband, Mark, died after previously returning home for the first time in 20 years in what’s spoke of as a “freak accident” involving a pitchfork. The prairie isn’t the idyllic setting one might imagine in Saul’s hands: instead, it’s teeming with a cult-like vibe with the citizens and allusions to “never being able to leave” the prairie once you’re there. And then there is the story of the titular character, Nathaniel, the lone child survivor after his mother killed all of her other children during a brutal winter on the prairie in the 1800s. Everyone chalks it up to a fun ghost story to tell the children, but it can’t be true, right?

Janet and Michael meet and board with the in-laws, Anna, who is inexplicably confined to a wheelchair (inexplicable in the sense of she nor anyone else are able to explain why) and Amos, the tyrannical patriarch who uses a razor strop on Michael when Michael talks back. They’re a bit … off, to say the least, and if Janet wasn’t shrouded in her grief over her husband, she would have noticed all the red flags. Amos, as you can imagine, also previously beat Mark and Anna. When a stray dog comes to Michael’s defense when he falls into a pit with pigs — the dog seems imbued with supernatural elements to some degree — and Michael wants to keep the dog he affectionately names Shadow, Amos, who doesn’t like dogs (a true sign of a sociopath!), threatens to shoot the dog dead. Luckily, Anna steps in to prevent it.

Even more bewildering than the fact that Mark basically disowned his family and didn’t talk about them through 13 years of marriage to Janet is that, Janet comes to find out, Mark not only had a sister named Laura, but an entire farm bequeathed to him by his father upon their marriage — Janet’s dream was to have a farm. Ouch. But the sinister, nefarious reason Mark never talked about it, and which comes bubbling up from Laura’s retelling, and later with Mark through a supernatural mental connection with Nathaniel, is that Amos has killed numerous infants born to Anna and Laura. The last child he killed of Anna’s is what precipitated Mark finally leaving and apparently what confined Anna to her wheelchair. Or by Amos’ telling, his family has a curse going back to the 1800s with Nathaniel to where a random assortment of children born in their lineage will be stillborn: born dead. His duty is to bury them in the nearby field.

We come to find out, Ben Findley, the curmudgeonly, reclusive neighbor, was the father of Anna’s last baby because Ben was everything Amos was minus the abusive part, and Anna spent the next 20 years thinking Amos had killed their baby. That’s why she, for lack of a better word, pretended to be in a wheelchair, to punish herself for her “sins.” But she learns, that baby, who is named Nathaniel, is quite alive and has been raised by Ben all this time, hence his cover of being a curmudgeonly recluse. Nathaniel is the one seeking revenge against Amos, Dr. Potter, and his father, Ben, for essentially “killing him,” for all intents and purposes, and keeping him captive for the past 20 years. He uses the mental connection with Michael and his dog to enact his revenge. When Amos is killed by Nathaniel at the end, Anna rises from her wheelchair, as if now freed from the shackles of the patriarchy. She’s fully alive for the first time in at least 20 years.

At the end of the novel, when Janet is in labor with her second child, Michael vicariously experiences the pain of childbirth for his sibling, but the curse seems to be true: The sibling is stillborn, and Michael runs out of the house threatening revenge the way Nathaniel once did. So, was Amos’ fear of a curse validated? It seem so.

Saul’s book is tightly written, with the looming tall grass of the prairie as an intimidating landscape (the idea that you can be swallowed up by it is talked about explicitly) and just as menacingly, the looming presence of all the men in the story from Amos to Potter to Findley to even Laura’s husband. They’re all tyrannical and expect their women to mind them.

I always enjoy a different horrific landscape to situate a story in, and in Saul’s hands, the human villains are just as horrific and richly drawn. I also particularly appreciate how authentic his dialogue is when Michael is talking with other 11-years-olds, and for that matter, with the adults. Saul is adept at writing children realistically, and then putting them in awful situations for maximum effect.

If that sounds like your bag, I’d recommend one of Saul’s more well-known books, Nathaniel.

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