(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Footprints is Shelby Hearon’s fifteenth novel, following the highly acclaimed Life Estates (1994) and Owning Jolene (1990), which won an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award. In Footprints Hearon continues her careful attention to detail, her rich command of language, and her clear insights into the human condition, especially the condition of women who struggle in their personal relationships. Nan Mayhall, the first-person narrator and protagonist ofFootprints, is a forty-nine-year-old woman who apparently has a stable and contented life with her husband of twenty-five years. Yet the accidental death of their daughter, Bethany, plunges both parents into separate griefs, and Nan finds herself reevaluating her life, particularly her connection with her husband Douglas.

Bethany Mayhall, age twenty-two, had been killed on Thanksgiving Day in Texas, struck down by a drunken driver as she was driving to see Jesse, her grandfather’s widow, at the Mayhall ranch. Her parents agreed to allow Bethany’s organs to be donated to help save other lives. As the novel begins, Nan and Douglas Mayhall are attending a barbecue in Houston which has been arranged to honor donor and recipient families. Nan is uncomfortable, upset by the sentimentality of the occasion, but Douglas is anxious to see who has his daughter’s heart and is delighted when he meets the recipient, the Reverend Calvin C. Clayton, and finds that he and Clayton are the same age, born the same week fifty years ago. Despite his career as a biology professor and researcher of the brain, he is emotionally caught up in the idea that somehow Bethany lives through Clayton, and that by befriending the preacher he can still have his daughter. This notion seems foreign and unfathomable to Nan, and she resents her husband’s enthusiasm, just as he cannot understand her ways of dealing with Bethany’s death. As Nan muses, “Grief cut a canyon there was no crossing.”

Nan and Douglas visit Jesse, “Daddy Mayhall’s widow,” on the ranch near Houston, and she repeats a favorite story about the first time she met Douglas, age seven, and his brother Walter, a year older, who later became a bomber pilot and was killed in action. Jesse thought they were exceptionally serious and intellectual children. Although she did not take the Mayhall name, she married and helped raise the boys and was always supportive of Nan and the grandchildren. Recognizing that Nan and Douglas may need a change after the loss of Bethany, Jesse gives them the property on Florida’s Sanibel Island where the family had spent several vacations. Before they leave the ranch, Nan and Douglas make love as they had done on previous visits, and Nan notes that Douglas strokes her stomach and calls out “baby, baby, baby,” the way he used to do when he was hoping she would become pregnant.

When they return to the cold winter of upstate New York, Nan has a moment of panic when she gets out of the car, wishing she could hail a taxi and leave for anywhere. It reminds her of the first time she came to Mead’s Mill, where Douglas had a job at the university; Douglas had finished his Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Chicago where they met, but Nan, a year younger, had agreed not to complete her dissertation and instead to move with him to his new position. She had experienced a similar panic then, wanting to go on with her own studies of fossils and her own life rather than be merely Douglas’ wife.

The Mayhalls host a dinner party in an attempt to act as they have in the past, and among the guests are Carole, Bethany’s favorite professor, and Jay, from another university, who is working with Douglas on a research project. Nan finds herself attracted to Jay, particularly since as a new acquaintance she will not have to discuss the loss of her daughter with him. The next morning, she decides to leave for the vacation house on Sanibel Island off the west coast of Florida. Before she leaves, Douglas brings Carole to the house to tell Nan their plans to establish a memorial at the university in memory of Bethany. Nan sees that Carole and Douglas are becoming close.

On Sanibel, Nan observes the varied wildlife and swims in the ocean. She is especially pleased when her son Bert, a diver who is studying the physiology of breathing, comes from the east coast of Florida for a visit, bringing his girlfriend Alison. Nan has asked Douglas to telephone while Bert is there, but he does not do so; clearly he and Bert are estranged even more than he and his wife.

Nan’s friend Doris phones to say she is...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)