cover image Leaping Man Hill

Leaping Man Hill

Carol Emshwiller. Mercury House, $14.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-1-56279-111-7

Revisiting California's Owens Valley and the Ledoyt family in 1915, Emshwiller (Ledoyt) elucidates the grim realities of her characters' lives with poetic tenderness. In spare but animated prose, she illuminates the healing power of love in the story of narrator Mary Catherine, who has come to the Ledoyts' farm after a harrowing childhood spent with a series of abusive stepfathers and a self-centered mother. Plainspoken Mary Catherine has been hired to teach Abel, the fatherless, nine-year-old boy who has never learned (or perhaps never wanted) to speak, but communicates in mischievous ways. His mother, Oriana, has lost touch with reality, living in the past when her husband was alive. Abel's older sister, Charlotte, cruelly burdened with the responsibility of running the family farm, has also suffered loss in the death of her dream of being an artist, while Abel's brother Fay and cousin Henny are angry, violent and brooding. Henny is bitter and self-loathing after losing his arm in battle, and though Mary is first attracted to Fay, she falls in love with the withdrawn Henny. Their romance is riddled with obstacles, mainly because Henny has lost the desire to be a part of society. Mary Catherine's evolution is touching; initially a frightened hired girl who believes that ""everything I've ever hoped was too much to hope for,"" she becomes an integral part of the Ledoyt family. Under her care, Abel discovers speech, and Henny confronts his own fears when he fights for her love. Emshwiller borrows elements of traditional romance, but layers her plot with dimensional characters whose emotional depth and yearnings are explored in alternating viewpoints and distinctive voices. Permeated with Western atmosphere and studded with small surprises, this is both a heartfelt family drama and a tender love story that marks Emshwiller as a writer of distinctive talent. (Oct.)