“At Briarwood School for Girls”
Author: Michael Knight
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Price: $26.00 (Hardcover)
After publishing his stunning collection of stories, “Eveningland,” in 2017, it would be understandable if Michael Knight lay fallow for a season.
But he is back with a new novel.
“Eveningland” was set, like most of Knight’s fiction, in his home place, around Mobile Bay.
“At the Briarwood School for Girls” is set in The Valley, in Virginia. One is reminded that Knight graduated from Hampton-Sydney, then UVA, then taught at Hollins in Virginia. He knows that territory, and the schools there, very well.
Briarwood is a girls’ prep school, venerable, upper-middle-class, and the administration means for it to be as respectable, above reproach, as possible.
But as countless novels have shown us, in academia there is always something going on: in the dorms, the library, the stables, on the field hockey field. Where there are hundreds of teenage girls brimming with, shall we say, energy and angst, how could it be otherwise?
Knight opens this way: “All boarding schools are haunted. Not infrequently by suicides. So it was at Briarwood School for Girls.”
This suicide was young Elizabeth Archer who, learning of her fiancé’s death in France during WWI, hanged herself: “The thought of life without her love too much to bear.”
In the spring of 1994, we watch as some current Briarwood students try to conjure up Elizabeth, the ghost of Thornton Hall, with a Ouija board, with some success.
Elizabeth has already been made immortal, dramatized, by another alumna, Eugenia Marsh, who won the Pulitzer prize in drama for “The Phantom of Thornton Hall.”
Now that very play is in rehearsal with young Lenore Littlefield in the lead.
Lenore is our protagonist and a very pleasing one. She is intelligent and sensible. Not especially rebellious or especially debutante-ish, she is nevertheless under a good deal of stress. Her parents have divorced and we learn early on she is, one might say, undeservedly pregnant. It was just one of those things, an anomaly, an error, and she must decide what to do about it. In this perilous emotional condition, Lenore may or may not talk with Elizabeth Archer on the dorm hall phone.
As the story unfolds, we learn the play is being directed by the tough women’s coach, Patricia Fink, class of ’76, who has never directed before. Her students, who think her to be a lesbian, would be surprised to learn that, as a student at Briarwood, Fink played the tender, romantic Maria in “West Side Story.” In “Briarwood,” we are watching a drama being put on by humans cast in their own drama.
We also meet the young history teacher Lucas Bishop as he is escorting a group of 58 junior girls on a field trip through the Manassas battlefield. Bishop is a likeable, lonely and high-minded young fellow who takes history seriously and is distressed: the Disney Company is planning to open “Disney’s America,” a historical theme park. The park would almost certainly be an economic boost to the area, but young Bishop is very skeptical about how history will be portrayed by The Mouse.
The school’s headmistress, Dr. Mackey, a very pragmatic lady, has already accepted a donation from Disney—to be used to open a needed computer lab.
Coach Fink and Mr. Bishop for different reasons decide to seek out the reclusive Eugenia March. Perhaps she can help Fink direct the play. Perhaps she can speak out against the Disney Park. In any case, Eugenia is a wonderful character, living alone in her farmhouse. When Fink and Bishop visit her a second time, with Lenore, Eugenia reminds Lenore of the first law of thermodynamics—energy is neither created nor destroyed—so a ghost may in fact be a form of energy and in a way, history may repeat itself.
Knight’s tone, here and in all his fiction, is quiet, thoughtful. In this very readable novel, there is plenty of humor. There is conflict, but serious matters are considered without melodrama or pyrotechnics. Humans are all infinitely complicated, with histories we never know of, and while some characters behave badly, they are misguided, not evil.
And lonely humans, however unalike, can sometimes connect.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.