This is what reading is supposed to be like: A story that comes across so well, so seamlessly that it is like a brain movie, that reminds you of the first books that kidnapped your attention. The kind where the bookmark is still warm when you reopen it.
When Wendy Webb’s debut novel The Tale of Halcyon Crane starts, Hallie James is learning that the circumstances of her life have been a lie. Her mother didn’t die in a fire; her name wasn’t even Hallie James. She receives a packet with two letters: One from a famous photographer named Madlyn Crane claiming to be her long lost mother; one from a lawyer telling her that Madlyn Crane has recently died. She has barely enough time to get to her father’s death bed to fact check, and in a rare lucid reprieve from Alzheimers, he says enough to confirm that there is more to the story than what he has told her. He dies and Hallie takes off for Manitou Island to meet with her mother’s lawyer.
7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 14
Common Good Books, 165 Western Avenue N Suite 14, St Paul
Manitou Island is one of those zero bars on the cell phone destinations without cars. It’s a place with big houses that is alive with tourists in the summer. Hallie gets there at the end of the season, when half of the town shuts down and the locals greet her with stink eye when she wanders into the coffee shop. Hallie combs her brain for memories of living on this island, and instead comes up with sing songy kid voices in her head, and a vision of a full body apparition, a young girl with braids.
The lawyer Will turns out to be her childhood friend; Madlyn’s big old house on the hill and her two malamutes are bequeathed to Hallie. And with this comes a creepy old lady named Iris, who makes stew, does windows and then parses out bite size pieces of the Crane history to Hallie — stories that date back to the early 1900s that Hallie can visualize so clearly, it is as if she was there. Think: ghosts, naughty triplets, witch brews, suicide, and murder.
The island’s newest resident gets the cold shoulder from the folks who remember the circumstances of Hallie and her father leaving the island: the death of a young girl blamed on her father, which he followed up with by faking his and Hallie’s death and whisking her away to the west coast.
Meanwhile, Hallie and Will start getting frisky.
Webb has crazy chops as a storyteller, and plays this one exactly right. Often, at the end of a chapter, I’d close the book, chuckle and think “nicely played.” The ghosts in the story are introduced in a subtle way, more like they are actual characters — albeit spooky characters — than something Dan Akroyd needs to Hoover. The relationship between Hallie and Will is adorable. And every time I stopped to say something like “Hey, wait a tick, how old does that make Iris?” Hallie had exactly the same thought. And there are scenes that are so, so, visual that it is like someone is reading the book to you while you lay there with your eyes closed.
This is one of my favorites this year.