The Madstone: A Novel
Once the reader gets past the unlikely notion that a young man in 1868 would write a 269-page letter to a four-year-old boy called Small Tot, there is a good story in The Madstone. Unfortunately, the story suffers somewhat from its telling.
Benjamin Shreve, the letter writer, is a 19-year-old man from Comfort, Texas, who makes something of a living building furniture, hauling freight, and doing other odd jobs. He boards with a young widow, helping out with chores and, we learn, sometimes providing other comforts.
The misfortunes of a man passing through town on a stagecoach find Shreve reluctantly agreeing to carry the man toward his destination in pursuit of the coach that left him behind. They witness the hold-up of that same stagecoach—which holds his baggage as well as a pregnant young mother and her boy, Tot—and a shooting. As a result, Shreve and his passenger find themselves helping Tot and his frazzled mother along their way, running from an abusive husband and his family.
The road presents any number of hazards and complications, including gun violence, storms, hunger and thirst, lame draft animals, faulty equipment, and—most of all—Shreve’s growing infatuation with Tot’s mother, and the boy’s bonding with him.
Shreve explains and describes all of this in detail in his lengthy letter to Tot, hoping, he writes, “. . . to lay down these events in a manner helpful to you, concerning some days you will probably not fully remember when you get older. I think you will want a clear idea of what occurred. It is plain to me I should do this, as otherwise you might worry over too many hard questions you can’t ever answer.”
The letter—and the book—ends on much the same note, with Shreve writing to Tot that he is to be given the letter when he turns 19. “I hope you will read it and find that it answers some questions. Otherwise you might tinker too much in your mind about how things might of been different, when you don’t even know how they actually was, or wonder how things was set on the paths they went on, and who fixed them that way for better or worse. Ceaseless wondering of that sort could be bothersome to you. Reckoning offers more peace to the heart, as it has an end.”
From beginning to end, the adventures Shreve recounts are engaging, even riveting. However, with the entire story told solely from his perspective, there are limitations. While the deft use of dialect in period pieces can add richness and authenticity, there is no respite from its employment here. No narrative provides a reprieve, no voices other than Shreve’s offer a break from his quirky locutions, unconventional grammar, unreliable punctuation, phonetic spellings, and the incessant use of “of” in every instance where “have” is called for, even among many of the semi-literate. One of countless examples: “He cursed how Texans should not of pulled out of the Union . . .” The first-person telling proves too limiting on occasion, and Shreve has to depart from the story to fill in some blanks, which he always announces to Tot, and apologizes for it.
The title, The Madstone, by the way, refers to a kind of stone with magic powers used by folk healers to treat and cure a variety of maladies. At one point in the story, the characters find themselves in need of one, and the search for it adds further adventures and complications—along with some developments that prove beneficial.
Each character that shows up in these pages adds to the story’s richness and development. All have interesting and involving stories to tell. Some readers will find it unfortunate that they are not allowed to tell their own stories, or have them recounted by a narrator, rather than in the only voice this novel has to offer—that of Benjamin Shreve.