(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Keepers of the House is a compelling narrative about three generations of the Howland family and their relationships to their house and community. The story exists on several levels. On one level, it is a historical account that attempts to explain why a group of Southern men set fire to the Howland barn, threatening not only the house but also its keepers. Looked at another way, the novel is a mythic romance that recounts a love story enacted in a fallen Eden, corrupted before the players come onstage. Still another level focuses on a woman who must learn how to manage threatening forces in a way that will not destroy both the attackers and the attacked in a modern apocalypse, when, as prophesied in Ecclesiastes 12:7, the dust will “return to the earth as it was and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” Grau uses lines from Ecclesiastes 12:3-5 as prologue to her novel, and from these lines she takes the novel’s title.

The story is told in four sections and an epilogue. Abigail narrates all the sections, though two, which carry the names of William and Margaret, respectively, focus more on these characters than on Abigail. As narrator, Abigail is gifted with omniscience, entering at will into the minds of the other characters and explaining that her memory goes back before her birth, the people of past generations being like ghosts constantly surrounding her, even at times talking with her. As keeper of the Howland house, she feels the pressure of generations: “It is as if their lives left a weaving of invisible threads in the air of this house, of this town, of this county.”

William’s section chronicles the generations of Howlands. The first William Howland passed through Mississippi on his way to fight alongside Andrew Jackson but returned to settle down. This William was murdered by marauding Indians but left six children to avenge his death. A William Howland was killed in the Civil War, but another took his place as keeper of the house. The present William Howland is a peaceful man, enjoying the bright moon and the scents and sensations of the earth more than he does the hunt. Widowed at an early...

(The entire section is 882 words.)