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The New Inheritors by Kent Wascom

Published by Grove Press on July 10, 2018

The New Inheritors combines a love story with a family drama that focuses on a couple of decades in the lives of people who are family by blood or marriage. It is the third in a series of connected novels, but the story is self-contained. Some of the story is a tale of sibling rivalry, or at least siblings who have homicidal intent. Another aspect of the story addresses an outsider who joins the family but is never part of it. The novel echoes Dickens in its juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, of innocence and those who prey on the innocent, but The New Inheritors is far from a melodrama.

A child named Isaac is born in a New Orleans tenement. His mother, caught up in religious fervor, takes him to Tallahassee in 1891 to await the end of the world. They are accompanied by a woman who loves Isaac’s mother but, because she loves Isaac more, rescues him from the clutches of a religious cult. Fate separates them and, at age four, Isaac encounters religion again, this time at a Baptist school where charity is accompanied by the belief “that behind each life was a sin-steeped story ending in either redemption or damnation — more often, the latter.”

A bit later in the story, having been adopted by the Pattersons, Isaac is back in New Orleans. Thanks to a capsized sailboat, he finds himself on the private island of the Woolsacks, a rich family consisting of a Prussian husband, his Cuban wife, and their three children. Much of the story’s drama centers on the Woolsack family.

By 1914, Isaac is getting involved with Kemper Woolsack, who is a bit of a mess, like many rebellious children of wealthy and judgmental parents. With a bit of help, Isaac is able to study art. He shows promise until World War I when the zealots in Biloxi who take note of Isaac’s refusal to register for the draft delay any hope that Isaac might have for a better life. The bulk of the story finishes in 1919, although the novel ends with glimpse of the characters’ futures.

Key characters in addition to Isaac and Kemper include Angel Woolsack, who hides his secrets by reinventing himself; Rule Chandler, who is smarter than a black man in the South is allowed to be at the end of World War I; and Red Woolsack, whose resentment that his sister Kemper controls part of the family fortune becomes a driving force toward the novel’s end.

The New Inheritors is a solid novel, but it never quite soars in the imagination. Its evocative prose captures the spirit of the early twentieth century and its characters are convincing, but the wandering plot at times seems lost. The story appears to be headed toward a powerful moment that, upon arrival, is surprisingly subdued. Kent Wascom’s robust prose and strong characterization is a sufficient reason to admire The New Inheritors, but the prose masks a detachment from the story’s potential power. None of that dissuades me from recommending The New Inheritors to readers who admire the beauty of language for its own sake.


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