Christopher T. Leland’s novel is narrated by young Gambetta Stevenson, Jr., a boy coming to maturity as the United States enters World War I. Gambetta, called Gams by his family and friends, lost his mother when he was six. His father, a Princeton graduate and an upcoming lawyer in Franksville, rears Gams with the help of two prudish maiden aunts, Lottie and Bea. The household servant is the black cook Althea, whose opinions convey basic wisdom on family and community problems (which abound).
When Mr. Stevenson marries his mentor’s widow, Sara Randall, Gams’s lifelong fascination with her begins. She is only twenty to Gams’s sixteen, and he is in love with her youth, vitality, and beauty, qualities his own family lacks. What further attracts Gams to Mrs. Randall is an ineffable aura of sadness about her. It is not her recent widowhood that disturbs the young woman, but rather the prior birth of an illegitimate baby boy whom an aunt has secretly reared for Sara. The reader learns of these clandestine events in a prologue to the novel; they are facts which Gams will never know.
Some thematic elements of Leland’s writing resemble those of William Faulkner’s: the persistence of the past, the subjectivity of the truth, the decline of the Southern aristocracy, and the brutality of men in a mob. Leland has much of his own, however, to contribute to these themes; his narrator effectively captures the spirit of his era and of his hometown. Finally, Mrs. Randall is an unforgettable character, simultaneously exuding feminine grace, human fragility, and intimations of a tragic past.