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  • Lake People
  • Written by Abi Maxwell
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  • Lake People
  • Written by Abi Maxwell
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List Price: $11.99


On Sale: February 19, 2013
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-96166-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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As an infant, Alice Thorton is found abandoned in a canoe. Adopted by a young childless couple, she is raised with no knowledge of her family’s history, especially that of her strong female forebears—Eleonora, Signe, and Sophie—who hold a special place in the history of their small town of Kettleborough, New Hampshire. Still, as Alice grows up aching for an acceptance she can't quite imagine, she feels a mysterious pull to Kettleborough’s lake and the island at its center, both of which will help provide the key to unlocking the truth of her past.
Resonant with atmosphere, Lake People is a memorable and luminous debut about criss-crossing lives, the interweaving of family history and individual fact, and the intangible connections we feel to the place where we were born.


My Heavenly Days


my aunt signe kept a marvelous supply of canned goods. These she ordered from S.S. Pierce & Company, a place down in Boston. She simply called them up and placed her order, and in another week or so the cans were delivered to her doorstep. Immediately Signe dated those cans. She had a walk--in cupboard built in the kitchen, with a wooden pullout step at the base of the wall. The cans dated, Signe pulled out that step and stood upon it to sweep the older cans to the front and place the new ones at the back. In these years since her death, this is what I have said of her: that she kept a marvelous supply of canned goods; that she never did find a suitor; and that she remains the bright pivot of my life.

It was Signe who raised me. At night, when she tucked me into bed in our house at 36 Highland Street, she would tell me the story of our family. They came over in the boat, she would say, with water for their blood. In my bedroom, a lightbulb with a circular shade made of birch bark hung from the ceiling. It turned slowly in the breeze and sent shards of dim light around the room. That refracted light made it seem as though Aunt Signe and I were together under the lake. On weekends we would walk there, to the lake, and from the pier Signe would point across to Bear Island. “Sophie, we two come from out there,” she would say. “Your mother and father dropped beneath the ice and your grandmother turned wild on that wild island.” It was a sad story, yet because I had no memory of anyone in it, the story was beautiful. It was the legend of my very own being, and it made me know that I belonged in this place.

I always believed that Signe, too, belonged in Kettleborough, though now I sometimes think she may have been better suited for city life. When I was a girl, she liked to take the train down to Boston. There we would go to the old Swedish church, where they still held an evening service in what Signe called the old language. And there was a man there. His name was Hjalmar, and his family had been close to Aunt Signe’s father’s family back in Sweden. They didn’t say “Sweden,” however; they referred to that place by sending an unspecific wave over their shoulder. The motion said that their country was not in fact a place, but something tucked away into time. In that gone--by time, Hjalmar had made a living as a tailor, yet here in America he was destitute. Signe would bring him bread wrapped in wax paper, and always a savory pie.

After church we three would walk together, and I vividly remember one of those walks. Night had fallen, and big, heavenly snowflakes fell down upon us. There must have been streetlamps, yet to me it seemed the snow itself illuminated the world. Hjalmar was a tall man, and he walked between us, his elbows hooked into ours. I felt wonderful with his arm in mine, protected and involved. When we passed a homeless man on the street, Hjalmar stopped and removed his wool coat. He gave it one firm shake. A wave passed slowly through the wool, and, once it was clean of snowflakes, Hjalmar draped that coat over the cold man.

“Hjalmar, your coat,” my aunt said as we walked on.

“I can sew another,” he said.

“You can’t afford the wool for another,” Signe said. It was a reprimand.

“That’s right, too,” Hjalmar said. His voice held no concern.

“Will you ask him to live with us?” I asked Signe that night, on the train ride home. She seemed astonished by my question. Yet if Hjalmar couldn’t afford a coat, I didn’t understand how he could afford to live at all.

“Don’t you love him?” I asked. I must have said more. I knew that it was only when we traveled to see Hjalmar that Signe wore her pearl necklace and a bit of rouge on her cheeks. I must have made my meaning clear: Can’t he be a husband to you?

“I cannot love Hjalmar as a woman loves a man,” my aunt Signe said firmly. She kept her vision fixed on the dark night. I took her statement to mean that Hjalmar would not have her. And I understood to never suggest such a thing again.

My aunt was a teacher at the Kettleborough schoolhouse, and just across the street from that school, in the triangle made by the town’s three roads intersecting, sat the Kettleborough Memorial Library. It was small. But it was also wonderful, made of brick, the south side a wall of buttresses and stained glass. Through that glass the sun shone in singular strands. The rest of the library was dark and musty, like an old stone castle, so those rays of colored light were striking. Signe, who loved nothing more than to stand in the sun with her eyes closed, used to enter the library, run her eyes over the small place, then walk with purpose to the book upon which the light directly fell. In this way she would decide what next to read.

“They never led to anything, those books,” Signe said once, when I was grown. It wasn’t until then that I understood that she had been on a search.

After school, Signe would cross the street to that library to visit the librarian. I didn’t know the depth of their friendship, but it was clear to me that the librarian was my aunt’s only friend in the area. It was a love of fashion that initially drew the two women together. Both were expert seamstresses, and their drooped necklines and high, fitted waistbands made them stand out in our small town. Though my aunt preferred muted tones, the librarian draped herself in vibrant colors, which certainly matched her personality. She was a joyful, unabashed woman whose husband stayed home to raise the children.

Not long after I asked Signe if she loved Hjalmar, the librarian gave my aunt a book. Signe came to my room with it in her hand. I was fourteen, and not a prude in matters of love. I don’t know how Signe saw this, yet she was right; I had kissed and been groped by a few boys, and it was not something I felt any shame about. In fact, I enjoyed meeting boys in the dark of the boathouses that lined the lake. “This is my duty,” Signe said, and sat at the edge of my bed. Nervousness had splotched her neck. After placing the book on my lap, she stood. Her straight back faced me. Her head was tilted slightly upward, so that her long rope of sandy hair reached her hips. Her hands, hanging awkwardly at her sides, continuously clenched and released. It wasn’t the sort of motion my aunt typically made. She was a sure, firm woman.

“I know nothing of the subject,” she finally said. “I have no experience with it.” She kept pushing to make her meaning clear, though it certainly was to me. “None at all,” she said. “But I do not wish such a fate upon you.” When she left my room, Signe shut the door behind her. To shut a bedroom door was an action never taken in our small world.
Abi Maxwell

About Abi Maxwell

Abi Maxwell - Lake People

Photo © Karen Bobotas

Abi Maxwell was born and raised in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and studied fiction writing at the University of Montana. Her story, “Giant of the Sea,” appeared in McSweeney's, and she is currently at work on her second book.


“Woven with secrets, danger, and a family history both magical and dark, Lake People held me spellbound until the last haunting page.” —Amy Greene, author of Bloodroot
“Skillfully executed. . . . Redolent of the secrets that haunt small-town life…. Suggests comparison to authors like Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Beautifully precise. . . . In Lake People, secrets are kept, secrets are told: Abi Maxwell . . . turns experiences into myths and locales into symbols.”  —Jane Smiley, Harper's
“Readers who love deep, dark, rich, multi-character, multi-generation literary novels will gobble up this one like a case of their favorite bonbons.” —The New York Journal of Books

“A stunning book that captivated me completely. . . . A beautiful offering from a talented local writer who shows enormous promise as a first-rate novelist.” —Paul Collins, The Telegraph (Nashua, NH)

“I read this novel almost without stopping—it’s a riveting book, with quiet lyrical power. It’s also inventive, wonderfully strange, hard-headed, and genuinely enchanting. A very impressive debut.” —Joan Silber, author of National Book Award finalist Ideas of Heaven

“Full of missing family, Maxwell’s debut novel begins and ends with Alice. . . . Maxwell’s writing has a whispery, brooding, atmospheric feel that conveys Alice’s fragility while capturing both the lushness of the region and its claustrophobic effect on Alice. . . . Compelling.” —Library Journal

Lake People is intricate, lovely and wise. Abi Maxwell trusts her stories and her talent, and the result is that rarity among first novels—one that possesses the substance and burnish of a classic.” —Deirdre McNamer, author of Red Rover

“A powerful sense of place pervades Maxwell’s accomplished debut . . . . Luminous.” —Booklist

Lake People is one of the most astonishing novels I have read in a decade. Abi Maxwell steps into the literary world with a book that rivals Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. —Debra Magpie Earling, author of Perma Red

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Abi Maxwell’s Lake People, the haunting debut novel about one woman’s journey to discover her family history and her own identity.

About the Guide

Set in the tiny New Hampshire town of Kettleborough, Lake People begins in 1982, when Alice Thorton learns that her parents had abandoned her beside a lake shortly after her birth. The shock of that discovery, of knowing she was unwanted, sparks her desire to know more about her origins, her family history, who she really is, and why her parents abandoned her. Befriended by the town’s librarian, Alice scours the books and newspapers that will reveal her own story.

The narrative proceeds in shifting time frames, mirroring Alice’s attempts to fit together the puzzle pieces of her life. Raised by foster parents Paul and Clara Thorton, she has no knowledge of her true lineage: her great-great-grandmother Eleonora, who brought her family to Bear Island from Sweden; her grandmother Sophie, who would turn Alice away when she was born; Elenora's daughter Ida, who answered a mysterious call and was swallowed by the lake.

Alice has heard the stories. Paul has told them to her, but she has no idea how they relate to her, even though she feels some special claim over them, “as though by the lake and its people she alone had been chosen” (p. 103). Indeed, everyone seems to know these stories, the lore of an insular small town, and that Alice is the offspring of a socially unacceptable union between Sophie’s son Karl and Jennifer Hill, a young woman of the poorest class. Because of that union, Alice is shunned.

And this is the central paradox of the novel. Alice is both shunned and “chosen.” Rejected by her parents and grandparents, Alice is an outsider in both the higher and lower strata of Kettleborough society. But on a deeper level, or because of some larger fate, she has been chosen. As an infant, she miraculously survives a frightening plunge into the ocean inside her foster parents’ van , her second near-death experience by water. And after years of feeling unmoored, witnessing a murder, and living with a man who does not love her, Alice is called back to the island by an impulse she doesn’t fully understand but cannot resist. Once there, she answers another mysterious call that leads her to a life-changing experience.

Complex, intensely lyrical, at times magical, Lake People explores one woman’s inner and outer journey toward home and self-acceptance.

Discussion Guides

1. Many novels have been written about family and family history. The search for self-acceptance and self-knowledge is also a major theme in Western literature. In what ways does Lake People offer a distinctive treatment of these subjects and themes? What is most fresh and surprising about the novel—about the story it tells and the way it tells it?

2. What is the effect of the way the narrative shifts time frames? Why might Abi Maxwell have chosen this structure rather than a more straightforwardly chronological narrative?

3. What role does the lake play in the novel? Does it exert some supernatural power over those who live near it, and over Eleonora’s family in particular? Or is the lake’s power merely a projection of unconscious fears and wishes? Or is there some other explanation for the gravitational pull it seems to exert?

4. Why do Alice’s grandparents give her up? How does this feeling of not being wanted affect Alice throughout the rest of her life?

5. What role does social class play in the novel?

6. What is the significance of Alice falling into the ocean at the very moment her foster mother sees a whale emerging from it? Why would her mother think that her infant disappearing just as the whale appeared added “some order to the mystery” (p. 72)?

7. How does the story of Devnet and the death of George Collins—which twelve-year-old Alice witnesses and then revisits twenty-four years later—relate to the rest of the novel?

8. In what ways are secrets important in the novel? Who keeps secrets and why? What is the effect of revealing or discovering the truth?

9. Why does Kenneth intercept Simon and Alice’s letters? Why does Rose burn them? Is it chance or fate that brings Alice and Simon together again?

10. Why does Alice make such inappropriate choices of lovers in Mike Shaw and Josh? What is she trying to get from them? In what ways does it feel right that she finds her way in the end, and after many obstacles, to Simon?

11. Near the end of the novel, Alice thinks: “Now, as I walk through this town, I wonder just how many people know my story, and how it is possible that in all these years, no one has ever thought to tell it to me” (p. 198). Why haven’t the townspeople told Alice what they know about her past? Why hasn’t Alice asked more directly? Is there something necessary in her discovering who she is in the way she does?

12. The final paragraphs of Lake People point to a mystical experience. Alice says: “I could believe that all of us, and the journey I had just taken, had never existed and would always exist” (p. 210). What does she mean by this? How can it be true that something had never existed and would always exist?

13. How are readers to understand Alice’s journey over the frozen lake to the “Witches” and her encounter with the bear-woman? She feels certain it really happened, but if so, it violates the laws of ordinary reality. How can this seeming paradox be resolved or accepted?

14. In many ways, Alice has been searching for home throughout the novel. Why does she come to feel that the lake is her home and to see herself as “a child of that water, and not the unwanted infant that I truly was” (p. 205)? How does knowing the true story of her life help Alice accept herself?

Suggested Readings

Julia Alvarez, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents; Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre; Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; Mary Lawson, Crow Lake; W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage; Jodi Picoult, Keeping Faith.

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