Shadow of Night by August Derleth (1943)
An old woman kneels before a grave, clearing it with shears. The name on the grave is Gebhardt, but age and cracks had obliterated the first name. She notices a second marker, hidden by the overgrowth. A wife, perhaps, she thinks. As she slowly clears the marker, she sees another name, Hasso. So the markers were not part of the same grave lot. Again, time has erased the first name on this marker. She goes about her working, clearing the graves in this old cemetery, graves that are so close to each other...
It's 1852, springtime. Kurt Hasso, a tutor in natural sciences, has come to Sac Prairie, a growing village on the shores of Wisconsin. He finds employment and a room at the home of Mellman, a prominent businessman and town leader. Hasso is to tutor Mellman's children and perhaps other children in the village who can afford his services. No one knows that Hasso was on a mission. He was driven to avenge the death of his younger brother seven years before in Bavaria. After years of searching he has located his prey, Odo Gebhardt, who had settled in Sac Prairie a few years before.
Hatred is a kind of disease, like the shadow of night coming across the sun.
Hasso has always been a loner. Set apart from others because of a hunched back, the only person who ever showed him kindness was his brother. But then he came to Sac Prairie. Ammi Mellman, a lively, fifteen-year-old girl, quickly won Hasso's affections by her kind ways and acceptance of Hasso's deformity. (Hasso, it must be noted, was not sexually attracted to the young girl; his love for the young girl was a mixture of fatherly and brotherly affection.) Ammi's heart belongs to Charlie, the son of Hasso's enemy Gebhardt. Despite himself, Hasso finds himself drawn to Charlie, who is a very likable and talented boy verging on manhood.
Hasso's conflicted emotions increase when he meets Gebhardt, whom he finds to be an honorable and friendly man. His desire to kill Gebhardt is opposed by his wish not to hurt Ammi, for to kill her lover's father would surely cause her pain. Soon, circumstances arise that force Hasso to save Gebhart's life; even this act does not extinguish Hasso's desire for vengeance. As time goes on Hasso becomes part of the community and he finds himself solidly entwined into the life of Sac Prairie, Hasso must come to grips with his inner natures.
Against this human drama is the story of the growth of a community. Once considered the Western edge of civilization, the westward movement has made Sac Prairie a respectable community. It has been twenty years since the Black Hawk Indian War had threatened the small village. Trapping and trading has given way to farming. Women's rights, a prohibition movement, and abolitionist sentiment are topics to be debated. The town is finding its way to integrate Freethinkers, Catholics, and Protestants into one community. There is a struggle of rationality against mob rule, as well as a debate between state's rights and federal rights. The growing pains of a country are examined in the microsoam of a small Wisconsin village.
Since Hasso is a tutor in natural sciences, Derleth uses him to introduce one of his favorite characters: nature itself. Derleth lovingly describes the beauty and purpose of the flora and fauna of the area, the glow of the stars and the sweet breath of the wind. The town and its surroundings form a symbiotic relationship.
Shadow of Light is part of Derleth's massive Sac Prairie Saga, itself a component of his Wisconsin Saga. The story is told with warmth, humor, and sympathy, all with an underlying thread of humanity. The book may not appeal to some modern readers, however. In fact, the basic story may be better presented as a novella, but Derleth's wider themes mandate his leisurely pace and style. Derleth was a major writer of regional literature -- a position that may be overlooked because of his importance as a mystery and fantasy writer and publisher.
For more Forgotten Books this week, turn to Pattinase, the always interesting blog of Patti Abbott.