(Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me.)
Jayne Anne Phillips is a dangerous writer. Fearless in her writing and fearless in the territory she stakes out, a vast shadowland populated by people young and old in the grips of obsession, seeking comfort, love, salvation.
In her mesmerizing new novel, Quiet Dell, Phillips returns to the scene of a real crime that occurred in the 1931, in a West Virginia town not far from where Phillips grew up. A crime that Phillips’ mother, herself haunted by memories of watching townspeople flocking to the scene, had told her about when she was a girl.
At the time the newspapers were full of sensational stories about Asta Eicher, a lonely young widow, and her three children, imprisoned and murdered by Harry Powers, a charming serial killer who seduced scores of women through lonely hearts columns all around the country with the promise of making them his wife.
Many are comparing Quiet Dell to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and they do have much in common. Both are born out of a true crime, both contain photographs--Phillips also includes evidence such as court transcripts, the letters Asta and Harry Powers exchanged, as well as the lonely hearts club ad Powers posted in newspapers to lure his victims. And both books to differing degrees contain elements of fiction, although Capote might dispute that.
Quiet Dell is a fully realized work of fiction. Phillips deeply inhabits the characters of Asta, full of yearning, who carries on her correspondence with Powers in secret, and her children: daughter Grethe, son Hart, and the youngest and most intriguing, mysterious Annabel. The descriptions of Annabel’s mystical visions, suggesting as they do a life beyond the veil, possess the surreal poeticism that has become a Phillips’ trademark.
It is her creation of Emily Thornhill, an ambitious young reporter at the Chicago Tribune, whose obsession with the family’s disappearance and in particular Annabel, that fills out the novel. Emily’s ambition, and her eagerness to make a name for herself in a man’s world, provides a powerful counterpoint to the society that was quick to shame Anna Eicher, and by extension all middle-aged women foolish and reckless enough to imagine they could find true love through the newspaper, or at all.
Though set in the 30s, this novel of alienation and the search for connection resonates with the digital age. Asta’s story is that of a lonely woman in the midst of an economic depression watching promise turn to dust, seeking connection and the possibility of love, turning to strangers who can write a pretty letter. The difference between then and now is we communicate not via the post but Internet. And sadly, the grisly horrors that are visited on this doomed woman and her children appear with sick-making frequency on our nightly news.
A reader, or this reader anyway, has to wonder what influence such a story had on Phillips as a girl growing up so close to where the Eichers died. Such terrible knowledge, so close to home, darkens the lens through which a person sees the world. It might inspire a fledgling writer to bunker down in her room with a pencil in the hopes of figuring it out. Who knows.
What I am sure of is this: Quiet Dell is a gorgeous, masterful melding of fiction and non-fiction. A completely engaging read that rescues the Eicher family’s lives from the tabloids so that they live, really live, in our memories.