In her second novel, Bethlehem, Karen Kelly presents a poignant look at family secrets and the way even the best intentions can cause harm through the generations.
In 1962, after the death of her father-in-law, Joanna Collier and her husband, Frank, move with their children into the Collier family mansion, Brynmor, which is the home of Frank’s mother and grandmother. The couple had often talked of moving to Brynmor to make Frank’s commute to the family steel company in Bethlehem easier, and after his father’s death, Frank feels a desperate need to help his mother. Though Joanna tries to settle into the new arrangement, she feels a wall between her and her husband’s family, especially her mother-in-law:
It wasn’t that Susannah [Frank’s mother] was temperamental or unbalanced or even difficult—but she was private to the point of being enigmatic. Just the other day, Joanna and the children had come upon her on the landing of the grand staircase at Brynmor. She seemed frozen there, staring into the distance as she grasped the banister. She didn’t even realize that Joanna and the children were coming down the stairs until they were practically on top of her. She flinched when she finally saw them.
Joanna tells herself that she never expected everything to go smoothly. After all, it was her father-in-law who knew how to make the solidly middle-class Joanna feel comfortable in the privileged world she married into, and Susannah was always something of a cipher. Joanna even expected the frustration of not being in charge of her own household, as well as the unfamiliar awkwardness of dealing with servants. But she didn’t think she’d lose her prerogatives as a mother.
When Susannah decides to combine the children’s birthdays into one party with a magician from New York, Joanna demurs. “We could let them each have their own little party with their classmates,” she suggests. Her mother-in-law’s answer is definite: ”‘Nonsense. The entertainment of children is best left to professionals.’ Susannah made the pronouncement as a statement of fact.”
But there’s more to Joanna’s discomfort than the ordinary hurdles of blending multiple households. Brynmor is full of secrets — secrets Susannah and her mother, Helen, clearly know. These mysteries are never spoken about but not quite hidden. Even a simple suggestion about where to have dinner can bring tension. One night Joanna suggests they have dinner in the beautiful, unused courtyard:
Her suggestion was met with silence, and then Susannah turned and moved toward the door, her voice oddly distant, “I think I’ll take your advice, Mother. A bath sounds like just the thing.” As her daughter left the room, Helen wore an inscrutable expression — vaguely troubled and somehow shrouded. “I think the terrace would be best,” she said softly. “It’s closer to the kitchen.”
To add to Joanna’s isolation, Frank spends long hours running the Collier steel company. In her loneliness, Joanna is attracted to the simplicity and straightforward nature of Doe Jannsen, the caretaker of the cemetery where the Collier generations are buried. Like Joanna, Doe knows what it’s like to find herself shut out of a loving family relationship. Her daughter married an Amish man and cut ties with her parents: ”Although her daughter, Sarah, had written with the birth of each child, every time the Janssens made the two-hour drive to Lancaster, they were placidly but resolutely turned away at the door.”
Sarah’s son, Daniel, however, has left his strict Amish family and found his way to Bethlehem. Joanna is drawn to him, too, and as the two grow closer, she can feel the pull of what would have seemed impossible a few months earlier.
Kelly juxtaposes Joanna’s story with flashbacks to Susannah as a teenager and young adult. Readers get a glimpse behind the façade that Susannah presents to her daughter-in-law, and we learn how choices, random bad luck, and secrets turned her into a woman that no one can really get to know.
Kelly, a Vanderbilt graduate, is adept at showing the hidden parts of people’s lives and revealing how the pain of the past can ripple through the present. But she also shows how brave people can bring healing by refusing to hide their true selves and histories.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in 19th-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
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