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Story of murdered family combines fact, fiction

'Quiet Dell' by Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips’ poetic voice lends resonance to her stories of family life, which, as in her previous novel, “Lark and Termite,” often include horrible violence.

While “Lark and Termite” depicted the love between sister and brother juxtaposed against a massacre that took place in the Korean War, Phillips’ new novel, “Quiet Dell,” fictionalizes the actual murder of a family decades ago.

Phillips’ story, which begins on Christmas Eve 1930, combines elegiac prose, journalistic fact, letters and a fictional reporter with a child sidekick. The novel begins with a portrait of the Eicher family seen through a child’s eyes.

Asta, the mother of three, struggles through the Great Depression in Park Ridge, Ill. Her husband has died in a streetcar accident, but his life insurance has paid off. Asta thinks the money will last another year. Luckily, she owns her home and has been taking in boarders to help support Grethe, 14, Hart, 12 and Annabel, 9.

Annabel is a gifted child. Four years old when her father died, she believes “poems and stories are the whisperings of angels we cannot see, beings once like you and me, who know more than we can know while we are here.” Grandma has told her that her sister, Grethe, is delicate and always forgetting things; so, Annabel remembers for her and continually helps her. The brother, Hart, considers himself the man of the house. He “would struggle in future to mitigate the needs of three females whose characters and requirements were so disparate.”

Asta, 45, does her best to provide for them. One of her boarders, Charles O’Boyle, would like more than just her friendship. Asta turns down Charles’ marriage proposal, however. She’s been corresponding with Cornelius Pierson, whom she’s met through a lonely hearts advertisement.

Cornelius claims to be a successful businessman and sends Asta flowers and love letters. After Cornelius visits, she plans to sell the house and move to Quiet Dell, W.Va.

Asta’s plans don’t work out for her or her children, of course, and much of the novel is concerned with the capture and trial of Pierson, an alias of the real-life killer Harry Powers. Powers has been stealing from and murdering other widows. The fictional journalist for the Chicago Tribune, Emily Thornhill, reports some of that news with help from an 11-year-old orphan who lives in West Virginia.

Throughout “Quiet Dell,” children’s verse and poems appear, interspersed with matter-of-fact reportage, trial records and courtroom drama. Ferocity and gruesomeness in Phillips’ writing are softened with tenderness, all of which create a novel of the caliber of her “Machine Dreams” and “Lark and Termite.”

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at

{hr /}{strong style=”font-size: 16px;”}‘Quiet Dell’

A novel by Jayne Anne Phillips

Published by Scribner, 480 pages, $28


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