Set in mythical Belle Coeur County in a time not too far from our own, Jack Todd’s latest novel gloriously re-imagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest from the point of view of Caliban and his mother. Read on for an excerpt and discussion questions!
Rose and her giant, simple son, Poe, live quietly on the fringes of their town — tending their goats and working at odd jobs. Prosper Thorne, banished from his big-city law practice and worrying about his fading memory, obsessively watches over his beloved daughter Miranda.
When Poe erupts from the forest one day carrying Miranda’s bruised and bloody body, he is arrested, despite his protestations of get help-get help-get help. Overnight, Rose and Poe find themselves pariahs in the county where they have lived all their lives. In the face of bitter hatred and threats from her neighbours, the implacable Rose devotes all her strength to proving Poe’s innocence and saving him from prison or worse.
Rose & Poe is a tale of a mother’s boundless love for an apparently unlovable child, and a stunning fable for our own troubled times. It will stick in your memory like sweet wild honey.
Poe, at dawn
The Giant Poe, six-fingered and six-toed, clambers up the rocky hillside to the goat pasture. He is quick and agile for a man of his size, and from a distance he resembles a great black bear as he scrabbles over the rough ground, ignoring the brambles that tug at his legs, the sharp edges of granite that could slash a finger or toe, the burrs that cling to his coveralls. He is barefoot, and the extra fingers and toes help his callused feet and hands grip the rock as he works his way over stones and boulders, gullies and sinkholes, past outcrops, fissures and ravines, and through a narrow graveled draw. In his wide footprints, oval pools emerge, where luminescent dragonflies will skitter through the hot afternoon.
The wide gravel county road is a far easier route to the top, but Poe gave that up years ago. On the road, teenage boys in pickup trucks called him “goatman” and “mutant” and accused him of having sexual congress with his goats. He didn’t understand half of what they were saying, but when they took to throwing beer bottles at him and a bottle split his eyebrow open, he took refuge on the rocky goat path. There he has remained, exchanging the ease of the well-traveled road for the difficult ascent of the narrow and craggy path.
Poe sings as he climbs, a wild song without words. In the pale wash of light just before daybreak, his face is rapturous. This is his world, daybreak and dew and the drift of mist in the Belle Coeur Valley far below. When he reaches the goat meadow, he pauses to wipe his brow with a red bandana and pulls a fob watch on its long tarnished chain from a narrow pocket of his OshKosh B’gosh bib overalls. He scans the time. The big hand licks like a black-tongued dog between the “1” and the “2.” The small hand is on the “6,” a number that looks like a bucket with a curved handle. It’s one of the two hours he can distinguish, six o’clock and high noon. The first six o’clock means it’s time to milk the goats. When the little hand joins the big hand at the top of the watch, it’s lunchtime, and when the little hand meets up with the bucket number again, it’s time for the evening milking.
The fob watch brings order to Poe’s world, parses his days one tick at a time. He believes there is magic in the coiled metal of its innards — that the sound he hears when he presses the watch tightly to his ear and listens wide-eyed to the tick-TOCK, tick-TOCK, tick-TOCK is a kind of sorcery and Rose has magicked the device so that it will tell him the time. He winds it gently, careful not to twist too hard, because Rose says he doesn’t know his own strength and he busts things without meaning to. He hears the distant bell toll in the steeple of the Lamb of Jesus Gospel Church, and counts the strokes using the thumb and all five fingers of his left hand, the way Rose taught him. The bell tolls six times. The watch is right on time. His lips flap with glee, a stream of spittle trickles down his chin, and he dances a little jig. Right time right time right time.
Poe slips the watch back into the pocket on his overalls and turns in a full circle with his arms extended, inhaling the mountain air, drinking it all in: the goat-cropped, dew-soaked grass, the tamarack and hemlock, hackberry and beech trees, the way the air trembles red and yellow where the maples are turning early. Twisted ropes of fog lie in the ravines and the rising sun is sliced through the middle by a charcoal ribbon of cloud over low mountains dark with spruce and pine. To the west, the sky is still the deep indigo of his coveralls. A woodpecker clatters somewhere, barn swallows dart after insects, a solitary crow flies due north to Canada. His friend Wild Bill says Canada is so close that Ted Williams could have stood right here in the goat meadow and hit a baseball plumb out of the country. Poe doesn’t know who Ted Williams might be, but he reckons it’s true if Bill says it is.
The green meadow is slick with dew and fragrant with wet grass and goat shit, riven by the bells of the nanny goats. He calls them by name: Jenny-Girl and Ostrich, the twins Bertha and Pearl, Roxie, Little Dipper, Maude, Lula May, Olive, Susie Q, Thelma Pearl, Aunt Nell, and Princess Sally, the pure white beauty of the flock. The nanny goats crowd round, bossy as church ladies. He lifts the latch and squeezes into the summer shed, where he stoops to fill a bucket with fragrant, dusty oats. The dust tickles his nose and he sneezes, banging his head on the roof of the shed. Poe rubs his head and chuckles. Damned fool Poe, he says, you manage to do that just about every doggone time.
Back in the sunshine, the goats cluster to him, nuzzling and bleating. Impatient horns beat his rump and thighs as he fills their troughs, shaking out the contents of one bucket and then another. He steps back to watch them eat. When they finish, he upends a three-legged stool propped against the shed and sits to milk the goats, beginning with Little Dipper and ending with Princess Sally, always in the same order because if he milks them out of turn they get fractious.
He crouches to wash Little Dipper’s bag with Rose’s special concoction, a mixture of water and Clorox. He nestles his broad cheek into Dipper’s warm flank and pulls, pulls, pulls in a slow and steady rhythm. The milk sounds like hsssssss-hsssssss-hsssssss-hsssssss as it sluices into the battered tin buckets, bubbling and frothing like witch’s brew. Two feral kittens mew at a safe distance. Poe squirts long jets of milk into their waiting mouths. When each tug yields no more than a drop or two, he moves on to the next goat. C’mon, Susie Q. Your turn. Come to Poe, girl.
The goats milked, he totes the buckets, two in each hand, to the gravel road, where he waits for Wild Bill De Graaff and his pickup. Bill is their nearest neighbor up the mountain. Morning and evening, Bill drives Poe and his buckets of milk back downhill, waits for Rose to empty them, and hauls the empty buckets back up to the shed for the next milking. Rose turns the milk into the finest goat cheese in Belle Coeur County and pays Bill in cheese. He eases the truck alongside Poe and waits for him to load the buckets into the purpose- built box. Poe places the buckets carefully, covers them so they won’t spill, and slides his bulk onto the seat, his knees up against the dash.
“Hey, Poe. How’re them goats this fine mornin?”
“All good. Got to bring an extra bucket tomorrow. Too much milk.”
“That’ll make some fine goat cheese when Rose gets through with it.”
“Uh-huh. Ma always say, ‘Poe, don’t eat it all, got to save some for my customers.’”
“I’ll bet she does. Man your size can get on the outside of a whole lot of cheese.”
Poe’s breakfast is waiting on a yellow plate on the kitchen table. Six eggs scrambled with a little cheese and lots of pepper, a stack of six hot pancakes with maple syrup, a bowl of strawberries from the garden, a big hunk of toast with butter and strawberry jam, a pitcher of goat’s milk to wash it all down. Warm milk because he doesn’t like it cold — cold hurts his teeth. While he eats, Rose stands behind him, rubbing his huge pumpkin head.
“I swear you’re gettin balder every week. Your head is like a big old billiard ball.”
“I’m gonna have to get my cue, see if I can’t bank this ole head into a corner pocket.”
Poe laughs. Rose can always make him laugh. When he’s done, he hands her his plate and says thank you kindly, ma’am, like he was taught. Then it’s time to go to the outhouse to do his business. He lowers his OshKosh B’gosh coveralls and counts the spiders, the way he does every morning. Nine spiders. He grins. Nine is a lucky number. It’s going to be a good day.
He wipes himself with nine pages from the Monkey Ward catalog. Men’s socks and underwear. He’s careful never to use the ladies’ panty pictures, or the girdle and brassiere ads. Those he has tucked in a little cubbyhole to the side, against the day when he has time on his hands to gaze on the bosoms at his leisure. There’s no time today. He has to get back to work on Mister Sir Mister’s wall. He primes the pump and washes up at the well out back. Face and hands and the back of his neck, where it’s always sunburned. Rose hands him the paper lunchbag. Apples and bananas and three sandwiches, bologna and goat cheese on thick slices of homemade bread. She pulls his big head down to where she can kiss his cheek.
“You back to work on the wall today, Poe?”
“You know what I say, give the man a full day’s work and you’ll get your reward in heaven.”
“Yes, ma’am. I always does.”
“That’s my boy. You might have your addlements and particularities, Poe, but there ain’t nobody like you on God’s green earth, be sure of that.”
The magic of stones
Poe is building a thousand-foot stone wall for Prosper Thorne, a man he knows only as Mister Sir Mister. After four years of labor, it is six hundred feet long, with four hundred feet to go. Thorne takes little interest in the wall he commissioned, but his daughter Miranda supervises the work when she’s home and sometimes helps Poe find the stones that he quarries from the fields. The stones wait in piles along the unfinished section of the wall: big stones, medium stones, small stones. With a wall this size, they ought to run out of stones, but they never do. It’s a mystery to Poe, how the earth heaves up new stones each spring, gifts from someplace underground. The miracle never fails. A pasture that is smooth as a baby’s bottom in October will be dotted with stones come April snowmelt.
When he sets the stones, Poe first hefts them in his palm to find the center of gravity. Once they’re in place, he checks their fit by running his fingertips over the stones with his eyes shut tight. Wild Bill taught him to build walls that way. A wall like this one is built without mortar, so the stones must fit together like puppies at their mama’s belly, says Bill. He says too that a man in a hurry never gets it right, so Poe takes his time. He pauses to watch jet trails crisscross overhead, listens to the ravens raising a ruckus in the spruce trees on the far side of the house, sniffs the warmth of the sun rising from the stones. From somewhere down in the Belle Coeur Valley, he hears the cough and gargle of a chainsaw and winces as the saw rips into a tree. Wild Bill says if death had to fart, it would sound like a chainsaw.
Poe is about to start work when he sees a big black car far below, coming up the hill. The car pulls into a turnout about a quarter mile off. A man gets out and seems to be looking up Poe’s way through a pair of binoculars. Poe sees the sun flash off the lens. He shrugs, tugs off his coat, tilts the two-gallon water jug with one finger, and drinks deep. When he looks again, the black-car man is gone.
Poe crouches to heft a hundred-pound granite stone. Bill showed him the proper way to lift the stones, crouching to take the weight on his thighs. After the first mighty heave sets the stone in place, Poe squares it with another tug or two. Then come niggling adjustments that can take an hour or more for a single stone. A nudge this way, a nudge that. Try it and look, try again, circle around, sight along the line of the wall, walk twenty yards down to squint at it from a different vantage point, then try again with eyes closed, searching for the fit where the stone sits true, as though it had been there since the earth was formed.
Poe can’t read or write. He has never learned his ciphers or his letters and he never will, but he knows stones and he knows the wall. He knows other things, too. The hollow, tinny sound goat’s milk makes when it pings into an empty pail, the way the fog curls away from the rising sun, the best way to sharpen an axe and bring down the tallest tree. And he knows Miranda.
At mid-morning, Poe perches on the sun-warmed stone of the half-finished wall, the water jug propped between his ankles, mopping his brow with a checkered bandana, waiting for Miranda. He hears her footsteps on the gravel path before he sees her. He holds his breath. Miranda has slim muscular brown legs and a cascade of wild dark curly hair. She’s wearing blue running shorts and a thin white shirt, the kind Wild Bill calls a wifebeater. The shirt is damp with sweat and her hard brown nipples poke through the wet fabric.
Poe swallows hard, looking at her, and a low happy gurgle bubbles from his throat. Miranda smiles. “Hey, Poe.”
“Hey, Miranda. Hello hello good morning.”
“Time for a break, Poe. I baked these for you, fresh this morning.”
“Yes, ma’am. Hungry. Work hard.”
“I see that, Poe. You work hard. Nobody works harder than you, heaving stones all day.”
Poe swings his legs back and forth, banging his heels against the wall. She leans forward to peck his cheek. He breathes deep, inhales Miranda smell. Happy, happy.
Miranda hands him a brown paper bag with eight fresh-baked brownies wrapped in wax paper.
“Don’t eat these all at once, Poe. Have two now, and then you can have four with your lunch and two more in the afternoon, when you get tired. It will give you energy, okay?”
“Two now, four lunch, two this afternoon.”
“That’s it. I wrapped them separately so you won’t get confused. Two in one package, then four, then two again, alright? And it’s hot, Poe. Be sure to drink plenty of water. If your bottle is empty, fill it in the well, but don’t forget to drink. Daddy loves the wall you’re making, but he wouldn’t want you to get sick, so don’t forget, right?”
“Poe doesn’t forget.”
She busses him again on the cheek. He makes the happy sound in his throat. “I’ve got to go get my shower now. You remember what I said about the heat, and be sure to keep your hat on, right?”
“I don’t never take it off. Ma says, Poe, keep your hat on! and that’s what I does.”
Miranda laughs. White teeth and pink tongue. Her laugh tastes like maple syrup. He watches her go until she is swallowed up by the shadows in the doorway. Brown legs pretty and gone.
He stares at the door, pondering. Is there a Miranda now? Does Miranda stop when she steps through the door and start again when she comes back out? Or does she stay Miranda? The thoughts trouble him until he brushes at his eyes like a man wiping away cobwebs. Then there’s Miranda and only Miranda, all-the-time Miranda. The thought of not-Miranda is gone and he has only her brown legs and firm buttocks and wild dark curls and the way the muscles in her legs move when she walks.
Poe hoists the jug and drinks, letting the icy water sluice down his neck and chest. He will remember what she is wearing. He can call to mind every outfit she has worn since she came home in the spring from the town where she goes to school, a place called Cane Bridge where there are lots of smart people and no nanny goats to milk. He recalls the striped pattern of an ocher blouse, the whorls of color on its buttons, the scarf that she wears on windy days — pale streaks of turquoise and amber and rose. Running shoes some days, yellow and blue and gray. Hiking boots other times, gray with blue, tied with blue shoelaces.
On the hottest days, Miranda wears flip-flops, one pair blue, one pair green. Sometimes her toenails are painted red, sometimes green. Sometimes no paint at all. She had red toenails the afternoon of the thunderstorm when the ravens streaked across the valley ahead of the black towering clouds. She hurried back to the house, telling Poe to run after her, with the rain pelting all around and turning to hail, and she held the door open for him as he ducked inside, her hair dripping rainwater and her face shining and wet as she watched the storm from the kitchen window. Then she baked muffins and poured a big glass of milk for Poe and he sat eating hot muffins as the thunder cracked and Miranda loved the storm and Poe loved her wet hair and the way she couldn’t sit still and kept jumping up to look outside.
Nights after the light goes out, Poe takes out his remembers of Miranda and pages through them like going through the Monkey Ward catalog until he falls asleep. During the long winter when she is away at Cane Bridge, he goes back to the summer remembers until Christmas, when she comes home to ski and knocks on the door of the little yellow house in her blue jacket and red hat. Hello, hello Poe, I didn’t forget you, I brought you the saltwater taffy that you like.
I loves you, Miranda, he whispers to himself, words he has heard at the moving picture show. I loves you Miranda all my life heart and soul goodnight.
Poe returns to work on the stone wall. The scent of her skin in the air. He chooses a sun-warmed stone, hefts it into place, and nudges it a hair’s width at a time, this way and that, searching for true.
Discussion Questions / Reader’s Guide
- In Shakespeare's original play, The Tempest, he portrays Caliban, his monster in a surprisingly sympathetic light, given the prejudices of his time. What do you suppose the author Jack Todd wants us to see in Poe, his Caliban? What are the prejudices of our time he exposes through Poe?
- Music plays a big part in this novel. Like love, it is used here as a device of unity and camaraderie and joy. Think of your favourite music scenes in the book. How do they act to counter the scenes of prejudice?
- Rarely has there been such a fierce and joyous portrait of love as that of Rose for Poe. Like Shakespeare's famous sonnet, it does not alter when it alteration finds. Is there a particular scene where Rose's love most stands out for you? Why do you find it memorable?
- The townspeople are quick to turn on Poe when they can, with tragic consequences. Do you think it shook them to behave better in the future? Why?
- Fables are often thought of as for children or leftover from time past. Why do you think the author chose to tell this story as a modern fable for adults?
- The book has many memorable minor characters. Which are your favourites? Why?
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