Carol Bly’s posthumously published Shelter Half introduces the reader to characters who are busy navigating tragedy and success one late autumn in the fictional town of St. Fursey, Minnesota. There’s Dr. Anderson, the local physician, all too aware that the town ne’er-do-well periodically beats his wife. And there’s Darrel, the lazy deputy whose interest in police work seems limited to the thought that someday he may be required to shoot someone in the line of duty. St. Fursey’s social worker is both a member of the town’s elite Tenebray family and a peace activist who refuses to face the psychological scars caused by the death of her infant son.
Bly’s depiction of life in rural, northeastern Minnesota (not to mention her creation of a multiple-perspective third-person narrative) is a dangerous equation, particularly because, in both setting and in form, St. Fursey sounds a bit like Lake Wobegon. But Bly’s sharply observed characters and intrepid appraisal of personal morality are more Graham Green than Garrison Kellior.
In 15 chapters that read like tightly connected but independent stories, Bly takes aim at the notion that moral ambiguity and complication are the intellectual and fictional territory of grander human predicaments and populations. She deftly establishes here that where there are humans to be found — be it the Twin Cities, New York, or a town of a few hundred — so too will challenges to our capacity to love, cope and empathize be found.
Bly offers no reassuring platitudes and no explanations for the interplay of tragedy and good fortune in the lives of her characters. Instead, she infuses them with the irrationality, the sadness and the joy that readers will undoubtedly recognize as both immensely human and inevitably messy. A novel of exceptional moral complication and immaculately crafted prose, Shelter Half reaches beyond the constraints of what we might consider regional or domestic fiction it addresses issues of the mind and heart that are rarely examined with such honesty, humility and understanding.