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Strangers and Cousins: A Novel

Strangers and Cousins: A Novel

by Leah Hager Cohen


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One of Christian Science Monitor's BEST FICTION OF 2019

"Funny and tender but also provocative and wise. . . One of the most hopeful and insightful novels I've read in years." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

"Serious yet joyous comedy, reminiscent of the Pultizer-winning Less" - Out Magazine

A novel about what happens when an already sprawling family hosts an even larger and more chaotic wedding: an entertaining story about family, culture, memory, and community.

In the seemingly idyllic town of Rundle Junction, Bennie and Walter are preparing to host the wedding of their eldest daughter Clem. A marriage ceremony at their beloved, rambling home should be the happiest of occasions, but Walter and Bennie have a secret. A new community has moved to Rundle Junction, threatening the social order and forcing Bennie and Walter to confront uncomfortable truths about the lengths they would go to to maintain harmony.

Meanwhile, Aunt Glad, the oldest member of the family, arrives for the wedding plagued by long-buried memories of a scarring event that occurred when she was a girl in Rundle Junction. As she uncovers details about her role in this event, the family begins to realize that Clem's wedding may not be exactly what it seemed. Clever, passionate, artistic Clem has her own agenda. What she doesn't know is that by the end, everyone will have roles to play in this richly imagined ceremony of familial connection-a brood of quirky relatives, effervescent college friends, ghosts emerging from the past, a determined little mouse, and even the very group of new neighbors whose presence has shaken Rundle Junction to its core.

With Strangers and Cousins, Leah Hager Cohen delivers a story of pageantry and performance, hopefulness and growth, and introduces a winsome, unforgettable cast of characters whose lives are forever changed by events that unfold and reverberate across generations.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594634840
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 420,522
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Leah Hager Cohen is the author of five works of nonfiction, including Train Go Sorry, and five novels, including The Grief of Others, which was longlisted for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She is the Barrett Professor of Creative Writing at the College of the Holy Cross.

Read an Excerpt


Episode One. Monday.

Four Days Before the Wedding.

The redcoats are coming! The redcoats are coming!"

Pim sounds the alarm. He's decked out in Minuteman regalia: his sister's old blue windbreaker, too big for him (mercifully, since it's all he has on and Aunt Glad could arrive any minute now). Even so, the pale cabbage of his bottom flashes beneath the hem as he gallops along the upstairs hallway. The dark wainscoting and wooden floors are giving off a swollen, spiced scent and the window at the end of the hall shows a square of glaucous sky. It's been raining for days.

Bennie, his mother, catches sight of the self-appointed sentry as his mission takes him past the open bathroom door. She's kneeling on the bath mat, helping Mantha wash her hair. Mantha, previous owner of the windbreaker, is eight and would normally be able to handle this task on her own, but in her current state, sporting a blue fiberglass elbow-to-wrist cast on her left arm, she must submit to her mother's assistance. She sits in the tub with her head thrown back, eyes pinched shut, mouth a perfect prune.

Pim, recently ejected from the tub himself, doubles back long enough to thrust his head in the doorway and repeat his echoic warning, and Bennie glances up at him, at five her youngest, hovering there still pink-skinned, damp hair sticking out every which way, imploring her to-what, exactly? express alarm? muster arms?-and a current of amusement ripples through her (his urgency, his nudity), but she issues only a short imperative: "Pajamas," before turning back to her daughter and tipping a potful of water over the cream-rinse-clotted hair.

"When are they coming?" asks Mantha after she is done spluttering. She splutters ostentatiously after every potful, no matter how carefully her mother ensures the water does not run over her face.

"When are who coming?" Bennie, picturing redcoats, frowns.


Oh. Right. The invasion. Everyone-or something very close-will be descending on them in the coming days, summoned together by the impending revels: Clem and Diggs are getting married.

Clem, the oldest of Bennie's four children, is planning, at the ridiculously tender age of twenty-two (never mind that Bennie was a bride at that very age), to wed her college girlfriend in four days' time. Bennie still can't quite believe it. With a not-uncheery sigh, she runs through the list of expected arrivals, a helpful reminder for herself as well as Mantha: there's Aunt Glad, speeding here at this very moment (Walter left over an hour ago to pick her up at the assisted living center in Fishkill), then Clem and her two bridesmaids, due later this evening. Spread out over tomorrow and Wednesday, Bennie's siblings arrive: Lloyd with his daughter and Aunt Carrie with her brood-

"What's a brood?" Mantha wants to know.

"A whole bunch of chicks. Or in this case, Aunt Carrie's kids."

"She only has two."

"I was being ironic."

"What's ironic?"

"Actually, maybe I was being sarcastic."

Mantha tallies the kids in her own family: Pim, her, Tom, and Clem. "Are we a brood?"

"And how."

Mantha laughs.

Anyway-Bennie resumes her itinerary-Thursday is when Diggs & Co. arrive, driving up from Falls Church, Virginia.

"Who's Co.?"

"Short for company." In this case, Diggs's father and stepmother. The "& Co." contingent, along with various other less intimately connected family members and friends, are putting up, thank goodness, not here but at the Garrison Inn in town. The future in-laws had been invited to stay here, but their demurral came, quite frankly, as a relief (a reflection not on them but on the haphazard hazards of daily life behind the scenes with the Blumenthals; Bennie doubted the Digginses would be well-served by witnessing at this early juncture just how chaotic a family their daughter was marrying into). Even so, their own house has been tasked with accommodating nine extra people in addition to the six who officially live here. Live(d) here. Because Clem, after next weekend, won't.

What almost no one knows is that Clem is the tip of the exodus. It isn't simply that Clem will presumably, in the natural order of things, be followed by the next oldest, Tom, and eventually by Mantha here and one day even by that little half-naked militiaman tearing up and down the hallway now hollering-what is he hollering?-Grab your muskets, men! It's that very soon none of the family will live here anymore, here in the house where Bennie has lived her whole life, and where her mother grew up as well, and before her, Aunt Glad, who is in fact Bennie's great-aunt. Walter and Bennie have agreed not to say anything until next week, after the wedding, after the meeting with the real estate agent.

For years they've had a running joke about putting the house on the market-mostly taking the form of idle quips about abandoning ship in the wake of some new thing going wrong, some not inconsiderable plumbing bill or carpentry bill or masonry bill (not to mention the great bat-exclusion fiasco, which led to the great chimney-rebuilding fiasco)-but over the past six months the conversation turned serious. And it wasn't any longer just the house they spoke of leaving, but Rundle Junction itself.

Still, it hadn't become real until the evening-less than a week ago-when Walter came home close to midnight from the village meeting, bearing a conciliatory pint of burnt caramel from Piccolo's. Bennie had kept herself awake doing combat with the Thursday crossword; he found her glowering at it on her old wooden clipboard. "Sorry I'm so late." He sat heavily on the edge of the bed, handed her one of two spoons and dug his own into the ice cream. "Public comments went on forever."

She listened as he recapped the evening's revelations, at the end of which she gestured with her spoon. "You're saying it's really going to happen."

"I'm saying it already is. Ben-right down the road, you know Garvey's old place? As of last week there's a new family living there."

"Black hat?"

He managed to combine a confirmatory nod with a reproachful wince at her use of the slang. Never mind that she'd picked it up from him; Walter had grown up around Orthodox Jews in New York.

"You're saying it's time, then. For us to move?"

He let a few more seconds elapse, out of respect or as a kind of condolence-after all she is the one with roots here-before granting, "I am."

She'd called the Realtor the next morning. Not being one to wallow.

So that's two secrets she's carrying around now-the second quite literally: she is ten weeks pregnant. Walter knows. And her ob-gyn. No one else, not until after the wedding. What a thing! Another fact she can hardly believe. As soon as she'd seen the plus sign on the stick she'd felt herself blush with the preposterousness of it, the unlikely foolishness of finding herself pregnant at age forty-four. And yet she'd felt this, too, in that first instant: utterly flush with good fortune.

In a gesture that is semi-involuntary and wholly uncharacteristic, Bennie now lays her hand flat against the wall at the end of the tub and runs it down, as if stroking the flank of some loved, ailing creature. In so doing she dislodges (oh yay) a few more flakes of paint where the wall is distended and discolored: signs of one more leak they've never quite managed, despite periodic attempts by assorted handymen, to vanquish.

"What are you doing?" Mantha queries.

"Oh you know"-airily-"just feeling the wall!"

"Whatever. Anyway, who comes then? After Diggs & Co?"

"Nobody much," says Bennie. "Just all the wedding guests."

For the wedding is happening here at the house, or at any rate on the lawn, on Friday at five o'clock in the afternoon; Clem had gotten it into her head that it would be auspicious to wed on the eve of the summer solstice.

Down the hall comes a tread too heavy to be Pim. Bennie looks up to see her older son toting the pretty leaded-glass reading lamp she asked him to bring down from the attic hours ago.

"Did you remember to bring down the night table like I asked?"

"Yes, Mother!" he flings back in a falsetto as mellifluous as it is unconvincing. Tom is sixteen.

They've decided to install Aunt Glad on the first floor of the house, in the room that has always been called the office but which has devolved over the years into more of a cold storage room, a place for stowing excess produce and off-season clothes. In preparation for Aunt Glad they've made it over: earlier Tom lugged down the folding cot and Bennie, in a rare instance of going beyond the minimum requirements for cleanliness and comfort, made it up with freshly ironed linens spritzed with lavender water. Mantha had plucked a nosegay of violas and put them in a jelly jar on the desk (these are already wilting; she having forgotten to add water) and even Pim had made a contribution: a windowsill tableau of battling plastic dinosaurs.

Back in 1920, the year of Glad's birth, the residential part of the house had been entirely confined to the second floor, with the downstairs functioning as the village post office and general store. Photographs in the powder room off the foyer show what it looked like then-with the old service window that's been reimagined as a pass-through between the kitchen and dining area, and the shelves where dried beans and coffee and rolled oats were once displayed now transformed into a pantry. One photo shows Bennie's grandmother Joy and Aunt Glad as little girls out in front of the house. Glad sits in a Radio Flyer wearing a pair of fairy wings. Joy, holding the wagon's handle, is costumed in a white dress with a diagonal sash that reads: Two o'Clock. The photo, as every generation of inhabitants has been able to recite, was taken on the occasion of the Spirit of Progress Grand Community Pageant of 1927, in which nearly the entire village was said to have participated.

More pageant pictures decorate the powder room, one whole wall of which is practically a shrine to that unabashedly multifarious event: here are men costumed as Wappingers paddling canoes across Ida Pond; there women in Grecian robes, posed Isadora Duncanesquely on a hillside; here Morris dancers with bells on their knees; there children skipping round a maypole; here a float carrying nymphs and satyrs; there-jumbled together in a single frame-a skeleton riding a donkey, a pilgrim churning butter, and a man dressed up as Father Time, cradling an hourglass in his arms.

All of the photos, it goes without saying, had been taken during the first four days of the pageant, before, that is, the fifth and final day, when an explosion in the grandstands killed eighteen children and injured some three dozen spectators of all ages. Collectively then, the photos, while portraying only the most shining achievements of the historic civic event, prefigure in some way the tragedy that was to cap it-at least for anyone who knows the story of that fateful day, as all Rundle Junctioners do-and this unarticulated presence, the weight of the event not depicted but nevertheless lurking within the proud images, lends the powder room gallery a faintly funereal dignity.

Among the children in this household, it's the photo of Glad and Joy that compels the most interest, less for the sisters themselves than for the way it shows the exterior of their very own home looking at once the same as it is today and not. It gives them the chills. It's like a magic mirror in which they can glimpse-not their fate, but what might have been their lot, if only the timing had been different. Over the front porch, for example, they can make out a sign that isn't there anymore: Erlend's Store * Dry Goods * Sundries * Village Post. Also they can see an elfin version of the shagbark hickory that stretches high above the roof today (or "in real life," as Mantha insists on putting it, no matter how often people remind her life was real then, too).

In the foreground Joy stands with her shoulders back and her toes turned out, regarding the camera levelly, whereas Glad, in the wagon, has an arm flung across her eyes, either to shield them from the sun's glare or to flout the photographer's attempt to capture her. The seated girl appears, to her great-grandnieces and -nephews, defiant, mischievous. More interesting than her sister. She looks like a girl who might hit you if provoked, and they have each in their turn admired her for it.

More than eight decades have passed and still, as the car conveying Glad Erlend back toward her family home rolls slowly past the sloping Green, marked at one end by the ruddy sandstone village hall and at the other by the moon-pale public library, the old alarm clangs in her marrow, scampers through her blood.

But why?

Beyond the sopping grass, down the hill, the surface of Ida Pond is sequined with rain. Glad finds herself straining to see through the drop-studded pane, intent on making something out, searching the visible curve of shore for the fatal spot.

Fatal spot?

She cannot pinpoint the source of her dread. It's a smudge at her periphery. When she tries to get a better look it darts away. It breathes unease, flickers and fans up the side of her face, blazes across her shoulders, crackles against her breast. With a whoosh her ribs flare beneath her blouse.

Glad lifts a hand, presses it to her sternum. Her fingertips are cool.

Now she is passing the center of the Green, where a hulking granite monument displays a plaque.

A plaque?

No plaque is visible through the rain. Memory supplies the element she cannot see, affixes it to the rock. A copper plaque gone lichen-blue. Engraved with eighteen names.

Glad is seven, Joy nine. Everyone in the village is here. Many more people from out of town are here, too, come by train and car to see the spectacle, which has been advertised as far south as New York City, as far north as Poughkeepsie:

The Spirit of Progress Grand Community Pageant

Outdoor Drama of Rundle Junction's Past, Present, and Future Performed Daily By Its Residents on the Shore of Ida Pond

June 20-24

It's Friday, the last official day of the weeklong extravaganza, but post-pageant celebrations are set to continue into the weekend (at their own house they have a party planned; Mother is baking an angel food cake with penuche frosting), and already, this early in the morning, the path to the grandstands that have been specially built for the occasion along the eastern shore of the pond is thicker with foot traffic than on any of the previous days. The Garrison Inn is full to capacity. New Ashkelon and other neighboring towns' inns have no vacancies either; some residents have rented out spare rooms to strangers.

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