It’s 1962, and Joanna Collier doesn’t know what to do with her time. She’s a nurse, raised blue-collar, who ended up marrying a former patient—one Frank Collier, heir to a fortune made from steel during the world wars at the beginning of the century. When his father died unexpectedly, Frank moved his young family back to Brynmor, his ancestral home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Joanna is learning to deal with having servants and she’s worried about her children growing up spoiled and lacking perspective. She also has a hard time living in a home where none of her surroundings reflect her own choices or personality and she’s frustrated with her mother-in-law, Susannah Collier, who seems closed-off, impenetrable, and judgmental.
On this day, however, she and her two young ones are exploring the town, and they’ve come upon the graveyard and its kindly caretaker Doe, who’s regaling them with tales of ghostly children swinging or playing hide and seek amongst the headstones. Joanna’s not quite sure what to make of it, but she’s drawn to the obvious history between Doe and Joanna’s mother- and grandmother-in-law, as well as to Doe’s quiet and handsome grandson. Joanna also wiles away the time flipping through old photo albums, puzzling over changes that have happened to Brynmor and its inhabitants in the decades since the 20s.
It’s the early 1920s and a group of kids are out on a raft. There’s brothers Chap (Charles) and Wyatt Collier, and their closest friends the Parrish kids, Kit and India and Susannah, known as Sassy. Wyatt is already smitten with Sassy, and when she dives off the raft to chase a fish she’s snagged, he follows her in. The raft catches the current and Wyatt can’t make it back to the raft, but they all see him strike out for the distant shore and make their own way home, certain he’ll be there. Later, Susannah is getting ready for her debut ball and wondering who will escort her onto the dance floor. She’s the princess of the steel town, seeing as her father owns the biggest steel factory and her beau is the son of the chief engineer.
Bethlehem moves back and forth between Joanna’s story and Susannah’s, building tension and adding in a few surprises. It’s beautifully written and lush in characterization, adept at taking us behind the facades to the depths of character beyond. Each woman has burdens to bear and secrets to hide, and it’s to author Karen Kelly’s credit that the revelations, teased slowly out, never feel fake or melodramatic. The novel has been described as a family saga and that feels right to me. It has the depth necessary to qualify, as we see into the hidden depths of the heart and the effect of secrets on the next generation. I will warn you that the 1920s end of the story starts out slowly, but stick with it; it builds. Highly recommended.