A Sudden Light

Garth Stein

Simon & Schuster


Growing up in rural Connecticut, I had been told the name Riddell meant something to people in the Northwest. My paternal great-great-grandfather was someone of significance, my mother explained to me. Elijah Riddell had accumulated a tremendous fortune in the forest industry, a fortune that was later lost by those who succeeded him. My forefathers had literally changed the face of America—with axes and two-man saws and diesel donkeys to buck the fallen, with mills to pulp the corpses and scatter the ashes, they carved out a place in history for us all. And that place, I was told, was cursed.

                                from  A Sudden Light


Hazards of family history

One should enter one’s family history cautiously, for those lists of largely faceless names and dates from generations past were once living and breathing human beings who, like us, had hopes and goals, lusts and fears, desires and disappointments. And, like us, they had their secrets.

Garth Stein, Seattle author of the bestselling The Art of Racing in the Rain, has written a very different book, a dark mystery that explores one family’s history and how the past continues to play out in its present.

Trevor Riddell is an unhappy adolescent (which, I realize, is being redundant.) He’s currently unhappy with his parents who are taking a time out from their marriage; unhappy with his mother for not being with him, and unhappy with his father, Jones, “for simply being.”

He has been pressed into accompanying Jones to the family’s crumbling estate on Puget Sound. Once magnificent, Riddell House is now crumbling from time and rot, but the land it sits on is worth millions.

The purpose of the trip is for Jones and his younger sister, the bright and sexy Serena, to convince their father Samuel to sell the land. Jones, recently bankrupted, needs the money, as does Serena. But Samuel, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s, refuses to sell.

As his father and aunt work to gain control of the estate, Trevor explores Riddell (Riddle?) House, finding hidden passages, secret staircases, and concealed chambers that become metaphors for his family’s history and its secrets.

And there are plenty of secrets: About Trevor’s great-great grandfather, Elijah Riddell, the patriarch and architect of this unhappy family history. A rapacious, greedy timber baron, he would feel right at home in this century as a member of the One Percent.

There are secrets, too, about his son Benjamin, Trevor’s great-grand uncle, an early environmentalist inspired by the conservation efforts of John Muir, and who died mysteriously in his early twenties.

Then there is the secret of how Jones’ mother died, and why Samuel still hears her dancing upstairs. And why has it taken Jones twenty-three years to return home to his father and sister?

The deeper we look into the past, the more it appears as complex and as complicated as the present.

Technologically, we continue to advance at an exponential rate. Unfortunately, these immense technological advances, generation after generation, do not necessarily translate into moral and spiritual advances, and the issues and traits our ancestors wrestled with are those we still wrestle with today.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 10-February 15, 2015.) Reprinted with permission.