Eden Springs, a Novella
By Laura Kasischke
Wayne State University Press, 2010
Reviewed by John Palen
Portrait photo by Patrice Normand/Opale

Where’s the youngster who hasn’t looked at a frail, wrinkled, elderly totterer and said to himself or herself, “Nah, that’ll never happen to me?” Who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, at least felt immortal? Remembering this feeds our delight at Laura Kasischke’s retelling of the story of Eden and the Fall, transplanted to Michigan and taking off from the real-life history of Benjamin Purnell and the House of David. At the emotional level, it all seems plausible. As one of Purnell’s young conquests says: “He told us if we believed in him we would live forever—not just in spirit but in the flesh. When the end came, we’d have our young bodies back again, exactly as they were. Slim, unfreckled, fragrant. And it seemed more than possible. It seemed likely. As likely as the life that we were living then.”

Purnell arrives in Benton Harbor in 1903, a handsome young preacher with five followers, a vision of the Second Coming, and lots of easy-going charm. Converts come by the hundreds. Hair and beards flourish uncut. Peach and apple orchards produce bountiful crops. An amusement park is built, and a zoo, a beer garden, a famous touring baseball team.

Some of the convert families include young girls, many of whom eventually enjoy sex with the charismatic founder. Members of the House of David enjoy life, secure in the belief that the pleasure of it will never end, at least for them.

But there is a snake in Eden Springs. When Purnell hints that he will marry Elsie Hoover and elevate her over the others, 13 of the girls gang up on Elsie under a peach tree and murder her with “a little length of rope around her neck.” There’s a stealthy burial and a coverup.

There’s also a whistle blower. Lena McFarlane is a clear-witted girl who sees through the chicanery and walks in stockinged feet into town to tell about it. Soon the newspapers are on to the story, and then the police.

Kasischke conveys the story with sly lyricism in short chapters that shuttle back and forth across time, sometimes with little hint as to who is speaking when. The technique gives a timeless quality to the Eden narrative—as if, in the eye of God, everything happens at once anyway. Only when the cat is out of the bag does the story move chronologically, sentence by sentence, chapter by artfully constructed chapter. “They came down from Lansing and Grand Rapids, dressed in suits, carrying badges,” Kasischke writes. “The gravedigger took them straight to the spot. It still looked fresh. It was easy to find.” 

Wayne State published Eden Springs as part of its Made in Michigan Writers Series, which has also brought out work by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michael Delp, Keith Taylor and others. Kasischke, who teaches at the University of Michigan, has published seven collections of poetry, two young adult novels, and five novels, the most recent being In a Perfect World. Her novel The Life Before Her Eyes was made into a movie of the same name.

© John Palen, 2011