The Coffins of Little Hope : Book Review

Abracadabra. Now you see it, now you don’t.  These are the words of illusion, and the illusion of words.  The illusion of the written word is thematic in “The Coffins of Little Hope” by Nebraska author Timothy Schaffert.

One of the ways written words manifests themselves is through eighty-three-year-old S Myles, one of the small town’s “death merchants.” S Myles, better known as Essie, narrates the story.  She also writes obituaries for the “The County Paragraph,” her hometown newspaper. In fact, she has written about the deaths of her townspeople since she dropped out of eighth grade to work for her father, who published the town’s paper.  Essie’s son was the next publisher, until his death in a tragic car accident.  Her grandson, Doc, whose dream was to open a magic store, inherited the paper and now tries to keep both the paper and the town alive.

One of the ways Doc has resuscitated the “Paragraph” is by secretly publishing books in a popular series. The “County Paragraph” has been using its press to print a portion of the Miranda and Desiree novels since the 9th book.  Now they are printing the 11th and final book, “The Coffins of Little Hope.” The entire town knows about the book and is in on the deception.  Like magicians holding the secret to a trick, the narrator tells us, “none of us breathed a word to anyone.”

Written words are not the only illusion in Schaffert’s novel.  The “now you see it, now you don’t” magic permeates this book and crosses over into reality in a number of ways, where art imitates life or life imitates the art of illusion. Disappearance by death is the strongest theme, but other disappearances are also prevalent.

One example is an integral story within the story, that of Daisy and Elvis and Lenore. When Daisy’s boyfriend Elvis leaves her without saying goodbye, Daisy reports that her daughter Lenore is missing. There seems to be very little evidence of an actual child, but the town plays a part in backing Daisy’s story, and profits by keeping the news or possibly the illusion alive.  The “County Paragraph” runs articles about the missing Lenore on a regular basis and little businesses spring up to cater to the “Lenorians.” The narrator tells us, “On this girl we pinned all hopes of our dying town’s salvation.”  She goes on to say that the disappearance of Lenore “enlivened the town yet ruined its soul.”

The narrator’s occupation, that of writing obituaries, also links the themes of disappearance and the words of illusion. Her words are meant to immortalize the dead and keep that person forever young, but sometimes the words distract the reader from reality. Only when the subject is dead does that person really come alive in Essie’s well-crafted obituaries.

Schaffert uses stories within the story to the same effect that a magician uses distractions, to disguise what is really happening and trick people into seeing something else. This is an effective way to provoke thought and discussion and test the gullibility or the faith of audience members.  Schaffert does this with his readers.  When readers look past the smoke and mirrors, they realize the underlying message of the book is the disappearance of small towns, and the extent to which our rural communities go to survive or to appear to be alive.

Like a side-show magic act, words lure an audience to watch a small town disappear before their eyes. No matter how hard townspeople try, especially using the written word, to resurrect what once was, the spirit and the physical are separated.  The assistant is not in the part of the box that is visible.  Only a shell of what once was remains. The coffin offers little hope of life after death. The small town is hurtling towards the end, and even though we who live in a rural community still feel vital and very much alive, Schaffert wants us to wonder what comes after those elusive words, “abracadabra.”  Will they be “Now you see it, now you don’t.”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *