Review of The Coffins of Little Hope

Welcome to Suburban Diaspora’s blog. This week we’ll take a look at an older novel: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert, published by Unbridled Books in 2011.

The Coffins of Little Hope raises many questions, including those about small towns, the media, and perception in general. The novel is the fourth from Timothy Schaffert, and it is told from the perspective of an octogenarian obituary writer in small Nebraskan town. Working for a family newspaper that is now owned and operated by her grandson, Esther Myles tells the stories of the dead. In fact, the novel itself is written as a seeming tribute to a girl named Lenore, who may or may not have been conjured by her mother Daisy in a moment of emotional distress. The question of whether Lenore is real or not becomes one of the central questions of the novel as her presence, or lack thereof, brings revenue to a dying town.

The primary strengths of the novel lie in the ambiguity of the passages and the brevity of the chapters. Each short chapter—many are only two or three pages long—creates a guttural reaction within the reader, and those reactions lead to the reader drawing conclusions in a visceral and emotional way. Schaffert’s minimalist approach doesn’t leave much time for contemplation until after the book is finished, and it doesn’t rely on soaring prose or thesaurus language—it even makes fun of such approaches at one point in the text. Instead, Schaffert focuses on prying and mining the deepest relevance within the reader’s psyche. There’s no doubt in my mind that every reader of this novel would have a different experience, but each of those experiences would be powerful in their own way.

The thematic elements include small town identity, the role of the media in society, and even gender roles to a certain extent. Each of these themes is treated with a delicate hand, and Schaffert rarely puts all of his cards on the table. The pacing of the prose allows little room for error, with moods often set in a single sentence: “There’s a pioneer graveyard out in the country, one you have to know how to find, as it’s tucked far back off the road and hidden by the drape of overgrown weeping willows.” The decay of the small town is palpable in every word, and the fact that Lenore’s disappearance brings life to the town is both intriguing and appalling. The duality of the little girl’s disappearance is the central focus for much of the narrative, and Schaffert allows the reader only enough to make their own assumptions as to what has really happened.

The only criticism to levy against this novel in my estimation is that sometimes the pacing grows uneven in longer chapters. Needed moments of tension feel drawn out in comparison to the shorter sections, and it can lead to the chapters feeling much longer than they actually are. By the same token, a lot of these chapters are the most rewarding to read, because of the build to their climax, and it isn’t as if they are that much longer. No chapter within the novel extends past ten pages; they just seem long when juxtaposed with other chapters that are less than three pages long.

Criticism aside, Schaffert’s characters make the world of The Coffins of Little Hope a fascinating place. Whether you identify with the unconventional protagonist trying to find the truth, the grandson trying to fill the shoes of his father, or the great-granddaughter with identity issues, there are emotional connections to be made for most readers. The brush that paints these characters is subtle enough that every chapter is likely to give something to reflect over, and that alone makes this novel worth reading.

The Coffins of Little Hope is available at Unbridled Books’ website.

Review by Matt Kimberlin