In Chicago in 1931, Asta Eicher, a lonely mother of three, is desperate for money after the sudden death of her husband. She begins to receive seductive letters from a chivalrous, elegant man named Harry Powers, who promises to cherish and protect her, ultimately to marry her and to care for her and her children. Weeks later, Asta and her three children are dead.
Emily Thornhill, one of the few women journalists in the Chicago press, wants to understand what happened to this beautiful family, particularly to the youngest child, Annabel, an enchanting girl with a precocious imagination and sense of magic. Determined, Emily travels to West Virginia to cover the murder trial and to investigate the story herself, accompanied by a charming and unconventional photographer equally drawn to the case. These heroic characters, driven by secrets of their own, will stop at nothing to ensure Powers is convicted.
A tragedy, a love story, and a tour de force of obsession, Jayne Anne Phillips’s Quiet Dell “hauntingly imagines the victims’ hopes, dreams, and terror” (O, The Oprah Magazine). It is a mesmerizing and deeply moving novel from one of America’s most celebrated writers.
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About the Author
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Quiet Dell includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jayne Anne Phillips. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
After the deaths of her husband and mother-in-law in quick succession, Asta Eicher is left nearly penniless to care for her three children. She seeks a companion through a matrimonial bureau, and begins a correspondence with a wealthy widower who called himself Cornelius Pierson. Pierson promises her the security and support she desires. Within weeks, she and her children are dead. Emily Thornhill, a female reporter and thoroughly modern woman, becomes deeply invested in understanding what happened to this family, particularly to the youngest child, Annabel, an enchanting girl with a precocious imagination. Emily boldly pursues leads from local police in West Virginia. She becomes personally entwined with the Chicago banker who funds the investigation and who is wracked by guilt for not saving the Eicher family from ruin. Together, they are instrumental in seeing the case to its close and finding justice for the Eichers.
“Phillips’s prose is as haunting as the questions she raises about the natures of sin, evil, and grace.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Phillips weaves original source material from 1930s news coverage and the trial into her novel. Quiet Dell is a work of fiction based on true events. How did exact quotations from newspapers of the day underscore the reality of the story? How would the novel have been different without them?
2. All of Powers’ victims (excluding the Eicher children) are middle-aged widows, spinsters, or divorcees. Though Asta speaks of “the anticipation of gentle touch,” (page 47) Emily Thornhill describes these women as “in midlife . . . likely already ravaged by men or by fortune; they wanted care and protection” (page 195). Considering Asta Eicher and Dorothy Lemke as examples, why are these women particularly vulnerable? What about their hope for “care and protection” makes them easy targets for con men like Powers?
3. After her death, what is Annabel’s role in the narrative? Is she there to help Emily with the case? Emily is not actually conscious of her but seems to respond to “visitations” of which the reader is aware. Do you think Annabel knows why she still “sees” into past and present?
4. Emily is financially independent, unmarried, childless, career oriented, and comfortable with sexuality—a very different woman from Asta. And yet once she takes on the story, Emily’s passion for the Eichers’ tragedy is unmatched. What is it about Emily that makes her so receptive to the Eichers’ suffering? Discuss Emily’s special attachment to Annabel in particular.
5. With the help of William Malone and Sheriff Grimm, Emily gains special access to the Powers case. Discuss how the two men treat Emily. Describe the differences in how each man balances his attraction to her with his respect for her work.
6. Discuss the transformation of Emily and Eric Lindstrom’s relationship—how does it evolve from “an alliance for a common purpose” (page 156) into the powerfully deep friendship at the end of the novel?
7. William Malone is motivated by an intense guilt, believing that he could have prevented the Eichers’ deaths. He explains his feelings to Emily: “I could have saved them. Many in the town might have saved them, and I must say so, for everyone must acknowledge it” (pages 245–46) How does his guilt shape his involvement with the case? His relationship with Emily and his hopes for their future together? Consider specifically the section “William Malone: Open Ice” on pages 353–55.
8. Why is Charles O’Boyle willing to marry Asta Eicher? Why does he behave as he does in Mexico? How does he contrast with Eric Lindstrom, his friend and lover?
9. Quiet Dell reveals the seemingly fated way in which people find each other in the wake of a tragedy. Emily, William, Eric, and Charles seek solace in each other and create a family around Mason Phillips. What does each of these characters offer the others?
10. All of the novel’s central characters struggle with secrets—Charles and Eric are gay at a time when that fact must stay hidden, Emily and William have their affair, Asta hides her financial ruin. In what ways do these secrets make these characters vulnerable? How do they bring strength?
11. Compare William and Emily’s vows to each other on pages 436–37—what do their words reveal about their perspectives and concerns? How do the vows reflect back on their paths through the tragedy of the Powers case?
12. Jayne Anne Phillips reveals in her acknowledgments that “Only four characters in Quiet Dell are wholly invented”: Lavinia Eicher, Emily Thornhill, Mason Phillips, and Eric Lindstrom. Emily, with Eric at her side, carries the story of the investigation and trial. Why create Lavinia and Mason? What do they add to our understanding of the main characters?
13. Duty was the Eichers’ dog in real life; his photograph and a newspaper caption describing him are included in Quiet Dell. Discuss Duty’s importance in the novel.
14. Emily and Eric locate Wilko Drenth in Iowa and are told that he saved his son from drowning when the boy was twelve. They puzzle over Wilko’s exact words, translated from Dutch, during their interview: “God help me, I knew it then” (page 268). How does the novel present the complexities of “nature vs. nurture”? In what way did Wilko feel responsible for his son’s crimes?
15. Annabel is drawn back to Quiet Dell after Powers’ execution, and she senses others with her who “lift and swirl . . . a charged flow drawn to that place, below” (page 445) Powers “cannot die and so he burns” until “a clear October week” when Drenth’s blond grandson sees smoke curling from his grandfather’s window. “Instantly, the plummeting fire is taken up” and “all of them, even those who never saw this place . . . are gone” (page 446). Discuss Annabel’s seeming release and her journey throughout the arc of Quiet Dell.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Look into today’s “matrimonial bureaus”—what are they? What are their risks? What advantages do the Harry Powers of today have that weren’t available in the 1930s? How can potential victims better protect themselves?
2. Read some of the original articles about Harry Powers online—how is Powers portrayed?
3. Research women journalists of the late 1920s and 1930s—was there a real Emily Thornhill at the Tribune or the New York Times? What kind of stories were they writing?
A Conversation with Jayne Anne Phillips
This novel grew out of a story your mother told you. How old were you when she told you and why do you think it stayed with you?
I’m sure my mother probably first told me when I was a bit older than Annabel. Her story was very much about her own sensory memory of the dusty road on that hot day, and the sounds of the crowd methodically taking apart the garage “for souvenirs.” I was always my mother’s confidante, and it was as though she shared her own dark initiation. My mother adored her mother (see Machine Dreams and MotherKind), and I couldn’t imagine why my grandmother would take her six-year-old to such a place. But thousands walked past, drawn by the newspaper stories. The crime was so unusual and horrific that it seemed a “wonder of the world” and cast a spell; it was also a warning and lesson about the violence supposedly inherent in sexuality, and what could happen when women cast aside the caution and repression with which society “protects” them. That double standard is still with us.
You make a reference to the crimes at Quiet Dell in Machine Dreams, which was published in 1984. How long have you been thinking about writing Quiet Dell? When did you actually start writing the novel?
I began actually writing the novel in 2008, but I composed Annabel’s first paragraphs as a prose poem for the voices ascribed to an “oracle,” a towering otherworldly sculpture that was part of an early Boston First Night (New Year’s Eve) celebration, over twenty years ago. The words stayed with me. Annabel herself is a kind of oracle, and she begins speaking in that magical turning of the year, in which life and death brush past one another. Her grandmother tells her, “there is no death, not as we suppose” (page 110). Annabel’s consciousness eventually sees beyond death, “bridges great distances in the breadth of a thought” (page 170) into a sphere that is eternal, in the sense that stars are eternal.
Were there any objects or facts that you unearthed in your research that were particularly powerful or inspiring?
The true facts of the names of the characters and places were inspiring and almost eerie; I could not have (believably) invented them. Years before I researched the story, a family friend who knew I’d referenced the crime in Machine Dreams gave me a small envelope he’d found in an antique dresser. It reads, across the front in pencil, “Piece of sound-proof board used in the terrible murdering, Aug, 1931.” Inside is the small black square, marked with a 3, that Emily describes in Quiet Dell. The first time I held it in my hand, the deep wrong done to the Eichers was real, and the novel inevitable, but I wasn’t ready to write it until years later.
Did you always know you would write the story as a novel, or did you consider writing it as a work of nonfiction?
I wanted to make the victims “real” and their lives meaningful, to capture moving, quiet moments in their experience that would make them unforgettable. I could only do this through transforming the story in my imagination as fiction. In my mind, Powers did not erase them; they are spiritually superior to him. Annabel is everywhere; she continues. Her murderer, finally, is nothing.
Was working with primary source material helpful as you wrote the novel? Did you find it restrictive in any way?
It was helpful in that the story and the names, the press coverage, even the images of faces, buildings, cars, and Duty (!) were there. I knew the story from the beginning, rather than having to invent it within the prose. It was difficult in that I felt an allegiance to the story and needed to stay inside it to the end. Quiet Dell shares with my other work the sense that one dimension of being exists adjacent to another.
You grew up near where the murders took place—were your own memories of the landscape and weather integral in creating the atmosphere in the novel? Did any of your own memories find their way into the story?
Certainly my sense of the natural world—the verdant West Virginia summers, the flowers, hills, meadows, the whirling snowstorms—inform Annabel’s senses and the novel’s weather, but the experiences of the characters are purely their own. Literature is about a kind of deep, sensory empathy that actually allows us to enter an invented consciousness. In thoughts and dreams, we escape all boundaries. Literature is a carefully constructed dream.
In your acknowledgements, you explain that Emily Thornhill is “an homage to my own loving, intrepid mother.” Can you describe how Emily is like your mother?
My mother lived a dramatic life full of tragic losses, but she was undefeated. She was a protective and tireless mother and teacher. She intervened to save what she could, and she was eminently sane and direct, never manipulative. Unlike Emily, she believed wholeheartedly in convention.
The book is dedicated to Annabel Eicher—what about her captivated you?
The Annabel I invented is impressionable, creative, full of little-girl optimism and confidence. She’s also prescient, which seems natural to her but alarms others. I don’t know what relation she bears to the real Annabel Eicher, except that I’ve carried a small newsprint copy of the photograph of Asta and her children in my wallet for years. Annabel’s gaze in the photograph, wary, knowing, goes right through me. It’s unforgivable that the victims—of violence, war, atrocity, neglect—simply vanish. The living must remember them. I wanted readers to “remember” Annabel.
There is a fascinating collection of epigraphs throughout the novel—quotations from James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and lyrics from pieces by David Lang. Is there any connection between the epigraphs? Some of them seemed like they could have come from books or collections Annabel or Emily would have owned.
The epigraphs comment and foretell—they’re a mix of real quotes from newspapers, from childhood books popular at the time, from literature, that hint at worlds within worlds. Quiet Dell begins with a joyful Christmas, and Dickens’s Scrooge sees into the past and the future, as does Annabel. The David Lang quotes are from songs in his Pulitzer Prize–winning composition, The Little Match Girl Passion, into which he incorporates the words of Hans Christian Andersen’s sublime story. I patterned Annabel’s relationship with her grandmother on “The Little Match Girl”—surely every girl’s most-loved fairy tale. As in the fairy tale, which Annabel certainly would have known, her beloved grandmother appears to her. David’s Match Girl was a revelation and inspiration; I listened to it in my car, driving one place to another, for years, while I was writing Quiet Dell.
At the end of the trial, William tells Emily, “this will take time to be over.” (page 424). Now that the novel is written and published, is the story of Quiet Dell over for you?
I think of Quiet Dell as Annabel’s version of the story, her triumph. Once a story is alive, it’s never over.