Beneficence, Meredith Hall’s first novel, appears 13 years after her prize-winning memoir Without a Map. Through the experience of a fictional family, Doris and Tup Senter and their children, the author tells a powerful story of love and loss and endurance.
The couple courted and married in 1933, settling on Tup’s family farm in Maine. The novel follows their lives over the succeeding three decades, many cycles of the seasons, and many turns of fortune’s wheel. Doris, Tup, and Dodie (the couple’s middle child and only daughter) narrate, in distinctive first-person voices, the family’s difficult life journey.
The author structures the novel in four parts, like acts of a play: Before, During, After, and Now. “Before” sets the stage, and Doris speaks first, looking back on her early years on the farm as bride and then a young mother, her love for Tup, their growing children, and their demanding, rewarding cultivation of farm and family. “Those were busy years. My arms and legs shook with the wobbles at the end of each day, a nursing baby and all the farm chores and the house and cooking and not enough sleep for Tup or me.”
Those babies are school-age children now as the story begins in 1942. The couple remains passionately wedded to each other and life on the farm, but Doris fears threats to this idyll and senses trouble ahead. “Sometimes I think, We’re a little family on an island here, protected from all the world’s problems. There’s been a terrible war since we moved here, and another war is brewing now on the other side of the world, but we just keep on milking the cows and birthing the calves and planting the seeds in the garden.”
Next, Dodie speaks from a child’s point of view. Although her night fears also foreshadow trouble, she is comforted and secure again each day. “But a new day would start, the morning light filling the house, my father in the barn and my mother in the kitchen, and I would forget . . .”
Tup fears his own deficiencies and wrestles with worries about whether he is a good enough father and husband. Yet sitting after dinner listening to his eldest, Sonny, reading aloud, Tup is reassured, “I laid my head on the back of the couch, my eyes closed, my arm enfolding my children . . . My farm lay with all its promise within our fence line . . . This is all that counts . . . Right here. This represents my love and the way I give it.”
As the foreshadowing has portended, the family’s contentment is blasted away by a tragic event and a death occurring in the second section of the novel, “During.” The darkness of grief, guilt, and anger descends on the parents and the children and overcomes them in “After.”
Doris’s voice is almost silenced for many pages. When she does speak, the powerful, authentic rendering of depression is almost painful to read. “I watch myself. I am not who I am. I am not a wife. I am not a mother. I want to be. I speak from a hundred miles away. My hands reach out before me and nothing is there.”
Tup’s different suffering also distances him from his wife and children; he works compulsively at the never-ending necessities of farming by day, and takes on another job—and another life—by night.
Dodie is left to take care of herself and her younger brother. Hers is a clear, angry voice, keen witness to the family’s changed state. “Sleet today. There is no school. Here is the awful gray light, the rapid little ticking against the windows that stays forever in my ear. Daddy is in from the barn. We are all restless, moving room to room as if we are praying at stations, praying that this story will have a different ending this time.” Hall’s empathic rendering of complex characters in believable, unendurable pain makes the reader as well hope for an impossibly different ending. And although death and damage cannot be undone, the concluding section of the book, “Now,” does chronicle the ordinary, extraordinary victory of a changed family managing to live on.
Life and death are close at hand every day on farms. Beneficence will remind readers of other stories of life’s exigencies and continuity in rural communities, like Wendell Berry’s. Hall’s simple, profound tale and clear prose is particularly reminiscent of the quietly rendered life cycles and enduring relationships (and the plain, beautiful writing) in another book, also set on a Maine farm: E. B. White’s children’s classic Charlotte’s Web. Both authors, Hall and White, are unflinchingly clear that death is part of life. Both authors, one writing for children, one for adults, also remind all readers that love, memories and stories, and indeed language itself, can have transcendent, radiant, beneficent power—even over death.