(I received an ARC of this novel from Unbridled Books and Caitlin Hamilton Summie)
So, after waiting 70 plus days into 2018 to begin reviewing, and remembering to jump in a bit during May, we've slipped to nearly halfway through the year with not too many reviews. To us, it makes perfect sense then to jump back to a book we've owned for seven years.
The Coffins of Little Hope is the fourth novel by Timothy Schaffert that I've read and I do believe he has written his best novel to date (that date being 2011). It contains many of the same elements of his earlier novels--offbeat characters, humor that sneaks up on you and a ton of empathy for his oddballs.
The premise this time around involves a post-retirement age woman whose been writing the obituaries for the small town newspaper since her late teens, a possibly missing girl, a YA book series on the level of Harry Potter, and they all settle down on the small town in Nebraska. The "Coffins of Little Hope" of the title stems from that YA series as its to be the title of the final book in that series--where Miranda and Desiree wander Rottgut's Asylum for Misguided Girls (note that Schaffert might also have one of the best abilities to put titles together--The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, and Devil's In the Sugar Shop were his previous novels, and even within some of his titles.
The narrator of the tale is the obituary writer, 83 year old S Myles (the S short for Esther, or Essie, or Ess). It's a great choice by Schaffert as she's seen the town's history, as the "missing girl" story ramps up it's mainly through the County newspaper, which not only does she do the obituaries for it, but the publisher is her grandson, Doc, whose daughter Tiff also plays a large role. It also helps the novel that S is caustic and funny and gives no cares at all about how others see her.
The biggest problem I have every time I consider reviewing one of Mr. Schaffert's novels is that if I were to do a real plot description, it would be a 45 page book review. The thing is, he pulls it off every single time. His novels meander and come back on themselves and occasionally open holes that are never filled but Schaffert does this is a manner that his readers simply do not care; they are more than happy enjoying the ride so much that finding an immediate destination does not matter at all. Which isn't to say that his novels don't get anywhere or say anything because they do. I find myself seeing others in a brighter light when I'm reading his novels, or thinking about them and I believe that's based on how he treats his characters. None of them have all the pegs lined up perfectly and in fact frequently might have less than half of them lined up, but they continually prove themselves worthy of empathy, or attention, or not looking away.
Without obviously attempting to do so, Schaffert sneaks humor into his tales, and he gets you to care about the plight of his characters. Not necessarily the aspects that the plot suggests you should (in Little Hope a woman claims her daughter has disappeared. Not everybody remembers the daughter. No birth certificate can be found. Meanwhile there are Lenorites (the girl's name was Lenore) sitting on the family's lawn. And while that seems to be a plot driver, it was never a main concern of mine reading the book--to discover what, if anything, happened to Lenore, or where she was. All of which helped make the book a can't put down novel for me. And I've not even gotten into the various relationships that the author of the YA series had and how they affect the story.
All of which is to say, in a long-winded rambling way (albeit, one unlike Mr. Schaffert, does not read well to me), Schaffert has put together a very interesting cast of characters in a small town in Nebraska, created a plot that pulls their various story lines together yet still doesn't force that plot to move in any certain way, does so with a little humor, a little empathy, and even a little spookiness, and does so in a manner that would have left me happy had the story gone on another 500 pages had it done in the same manner as the first 200.