In Print

Who is the stranger in town

Along Comes a Stranger

By Susan Wilson - April 19, 2007

"Along Comes A Stranger," by Dorie McCullough Lawson. HarperCollins. 2007. 272 pages. $24.95. Release date: April 24.

Dorie McCullough Lawson's debut novel is a new version of the classic stranger-in-town plot. Told in a deceptively simple first person narrative, the novel winds the reader into an increasingly narrow path of suspicion and, in the best fashion of a gothic novel - which this is not - gives the reader nervous thrills at the most mundane of actions. A man crossing himself, his desire to borrow a book, a facility for memorizing license plate numbers, all foment the idea that something bad is going to happen. Clever by far.

Kate Coulter is a displaced New Englander living with her paleontologist husband, George, and daughter Clara in Hayden, Wyo. It is summer, a time of breathtaking heat and enervation, a time when Kate reflects back on her life so far and sees it as unplanned and feckless. Just what is she doing in a town that has nothing but a Wal-Mart to recommend it, where the most intellectual conversation at her mother-in-law's dinner table centers on the best driving routes, where distance is measured in hours, not miles? A Bowdoin graduate with a degree in English, Kate has failed to do anything remotely career-like, something that has served to estrange her from her mother who makes it clear she thinks Kate is wasting her life. Living outside of Hayden, keeping the books for a local rancher and offering her small place as a nursing home for wounded horses, Kate's main concern is their daughter Clara who suffers from a rare disorder, medium chain acyl-CoA dhydrogenase deficiency, MCADD, which prevents her from metabolizing fat into energy, necessitating a constant watch that she has enough food. Even after 15 years in Wyoming, Kate has made no real friends, depending on a telephone call relationship with her aunt Joanne for companionship.

Enter Tom Baxter, her mother-in-law Lorraine's new boyfriend. Sixtyish and handsome, Tom offers Kate something she's emotionally parched for - friendship. Smart, thoughtful and conversationally adept, he quickly becomes the object of interest to her. There is never a flicker of anything improper in this interest, and Kate's curiosity about Tom is strictly platonic. She wants to know more about him because that's what friends seek from one another. Until she begins to assemble some facts that point in a wildly different direction.

Dorie McCullough Lawson's telling of this story reads in some ways like a good phone conversation, much as her protagonist has with the far away aunt. She's confiding, letting the reader know just enough about herself to keep the story moving, unembarrassed by the increasingly wild suppositions she's making. Like a good friend, the reader comes along for the ride.

"After George and I were married and I came to Hayden to live, my first job was exercising some horses and doing barn work for a rancher west of town. You might imagine how the job thrilled my mother! Anyway, I went to meet Wayne Fritz for the first time and I started right in telling him all about my experience with horses. He stood politely for a bit, and when I finally slowed down, realizing I was answering questions he wasn't asking, he handed me a pitchfork and said, 'Let's see how you do with this.' He pointed to a stall at the end of the barn. As I headed away from him, slightly embarrassed, he called, 'Don't strip it.'

When I was done with the stall he nodded and pointed to a mare on the cross ties.

"'Now tack her up. You can ride in the round pen and then if that all goes well, why, you take her up on the ridge.'

That was the job interview, and at the end of an hour and a half, I had the job.

"I thought, Wow, what a place! No questions, no show-me-how-accomplished-or-smart-you are attitude. Just can you do it? And how are you doing today?

After so many years living here, it's funny to think that those things that appealed to me so in the beginning tend to be what can annoy me most now."

With exquisite sensitivity, Lawson has exposed the raw human need to be included; Kate's otherness in a country not her own leaves her vulnerable to searching for a kindred spirit - one that may prove anything but.

Dorie McCullough Lawson
Dorie McCullough Lawson. Photo courtesy of HarperCollins

About the author

A New Englander by birth, Dorie McCullough Lawson, like her character Kate, married a westerner and lived for seven years in Sheridan, Wyo. "I loved the place where I lived. [It was] a different kind of town, such a region unto itself when so much of the country is becoming so generic." While Lawson didn't experience the deep sense of isolation that Kate does, she admits that she finds herself in all her characters. "I realize in doing a novel, that every character in the book is a little bit of the person writing the book."

The idea for Along Comes a Stranger came to Lawson while she was living in Sheridan, when her sister called to tell her that a certain well-known fugitive had been traced to that town. "Well, I thought, just my luck I'm going to meet him and like him and I'm going to be the only person who knows who he is. It was a funny idea, and scary. It was a story that hit me quickly, thinking about how you often really don't know the identity or the past of people you meet or you come in contact with." Using Kate's daughter Clara's unusual illness, Lawson illustrated the secondary theme in her novel, "the idea that mothers worry...and that what we worry about often doesn't end up being the threat in the end. You can worry all you want about one thing, but that isn't what happens."

Lawson had been thinking about this novel long before writing her non-fiction book Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (Doubleday, 2004). "I hadn't been thinking about fiction except for this one idea that stuck in my head. The characters were with me for a long time and driving me crazy. So I thought, just try least you'll get it out of your system."

Lawson says that she never wanted to be a writer. "I grew up with it. Lived with it with my father (historian David McCullough) as a writer, and it looked way too hard." Nonetheless, she says, "If I have an idea that compels me, I just think...I have to do this or think about it for the rest of my life. Let me just do it."

Lawson grew up in West Tisbury and was a member of the first kindergarten class to enter the 'new' West Tisbury School. She left the Island in her sophomore year at the high school to move to Washington D.C. with her parents. A graduate of Middlebury College, in Vermont, Lawson is founder and owner of Soldier's Creek Associates, a lecture agency representing writers. She lives in Rockport, Maine with her husband, Tim, and four children.

Dorie McCullough Lawson will be at the Bunch of Grapes on Friday, May 11.