The Bright Forever
Published by: Broadway; First Edition edition
Release Date: April 4, 2006
On an evening like any other, nine-year-old Katie Mackey, daughter of the most affluent family in a small town on the plains of Indiana, sets out on her bicycle to return some library books.
This simple act is at the heart of The Bright Forever, a suspenseful, deeply affecting novel about the choices people make that change their lives forever. Keeping fact, speculation, and contradiction playing off one another as the details unfold, author Lee Martin creates a fast-paced story that is as gripping as it is richly human. His beautiful, clear-eyed prose builds to an extremely nuanced portrayal of the complicated give and take among people struggling to maintain their humanity in the shadow of a loss.
Reminiscent of books such as The Little Friend and The Lovely Bones, but most memorable for its own perceptions and power, The Bright Forever is a compelling and emotional tale about the human need to know even the hardest truth.
A Featured Alternate of the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, and Book-of-the-Month Club.
Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Fiction
A Book Sense Pick
“Well-crafted, a cleanly written, artful…page-turner.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A deeply traditional novel, ‘literary’ in the old-fashioned sense…Its overall tone is as soft and giving as one of Mom’s old blankets.”
“[Martin] does a good, clean job of keeping the reader in suspense, which is the lifeblood of the literary thriller he has set out to write…Martin has real talent.”
“Compelling . . . The Bright Forever is both harrowing and deeply felt. . . . The multiple life stories are seamlessly interwoven . . . the suspensefulness never dips. . . . [Brings] to mind Alice Sebold’s talent for writing in a literary voice without airs.”
—New York Daily News
“His prose is spare, his description efficient. Sometimes just a word can transport readers back to small-town America in the 1970s. . . . The Bright Forever is a modern morality play without preaching or scolding, told by characters who are neither wholly evil nor wholly innocent.”
“A harrowing novel filled with lonely mistfits desperate for love, or at least tenderness.”
“Remarkably beautiful, eloquent on the subject of love, on the beauty of purple martins . . . Much of the power of Martin’s novel comes from the uneasy sympathy he creates with his characters, who are all too recognizable, in their foibles and desires, as ourselves.”
—Raleigh News & Observer
—Evansville Courier and Press
“[A] vividly nuanced portrayal of a small town in the heat of a troubled summer.”
—Newsweek (International Edition)
“Captivating . . . Martin has created an exquisite page-turner. . . . The Bright Forever is a masterpiece in its own right. Readers will be entranced by the story from the get-go, and held until the end by a string of unnerving suspense and quiet disbelief.”
“Martin shifts back and forth in time, skillfully dropping clues, countering readers’ expectations, and building tension. Combining elements of family fiction, psychological thriller, and small-town nostalgia, this book is written in lyrical prose that will engage readers of all types.”
“Gripping . . . mesmerizing . . . Martin’s novel is hard to put down.”
“Rich details and raw emotion mix as Martin, in engaging the human desire to excavate the truth, underscores its complex, elusive nature.”
“Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever goes deep into the mystery of being alive on this earth. Written in the clearest prose, working back and forth over its complex story, and told in the dark, desperate, vivid voices of its various speakers, it holds you spellbound to the end, to its final, sad revelations.”
—Kent Haruf, author of Eventide and Plainsong
“I read Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. Part Mystic River, part Winesburg, Ohio, this harrowing and beautiful book is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read in years, and heralds the breakout of a remarkable talent.”
—Bret Lott, author of Jewel and A Song I Knew by Heart
“Like Winesburg, Ohio, The Bright Forever captures, in alternating voices, the individual acts of desperation that lead to a community’s sorrow. And, like Sherwood Anderson, Lee Martin is not happy to let guilt reside singularly or simply. This is a morally complex quilt, a page-turner that also insists on the reader’s participation in moral contemplation.”
—Antonya Nelson, author of Female Trouble and Talking in Bed
“With what consummate skill Lee Martin conjures up a small town in the grip of tragedy and how deftly he explores the way in which a casual remark, a brief kiss, a white lie can have the most terrible consequences. The Bright Forever is a remarkable and almost unbearably suspenseful novel.”
—Margot Livesey, author of Banishing Verona and Eva Moves the Furniture
“The Bright Forever will get under your skin with its exquisite psychology and fine-tuned suspense. Lee Martin has created a world of aching beauty and terrible loss.”
—Jean Thompson, author City Boy and Wide Blue Yonder
“The Bright Forever is ravishing. . . . Lee Martin’s characters, dear readers, are us—riven and bedeviled, our souls gone grainy and rank, our hearts busted and beating heavily for love. We have Lee Martin to thank for having the moral courage—yes, an old-fashioned but rare virtue—to tell it to us plain.”
—Lee K. Abbott, author of Living After Midnight
1. As each character begins to tell his or her part of the story, we see that they all have vivid flashes of memory about that fateful day—a smell, a taste, a feeling, the way that the evening sky looked, the sound of Katie’s voice. Beyond setting the scene for the reader, how do these images help you form a picture of who these people are? What are some examples from the book of other events that are remembered in this kind of tactile detail? Are there any events from your own life that you remember in this way?
2. What do you make of the relationship between Clare and Raymond? Why do you think she is afraid that people will find her foolish? Why does she refuse to acknowledge his guilt for so long? What do these two give to each other, and why do you think that those around them are made so uncomfortable by it?
3. Henry Dees says his fixation with Katie comes from the fatherly love he feels for her. Do you agree with this view, or do you think there is something more sinister at play in his mind? Is Henry a harmless eccentric, or a man at war with his own inner nature? He knows that his adoration for the child is somehow wrong, so why is he powerless to stop it?
4. Throughout the novel, we see the purple martins come and go, and both Henry and Clare feel a particular love for and connection with them. Why do you think this is? What is it about the birds that each of them loves? Is it the same for both? And what do the hawks represent in this context?
5. What do you think Raymond sees in Henry that makes him seek him out as a friend? Is he simply taking advantage of someone that he can see right away is weak, or does he truly mean to be a friend to him? And why does Henry befriend Raymond, even letting himself be taken advantage of?
6. Discuss the character of Junior Mackey. Of what significance is the list Gilley finds of his life goals (all achieved, to the letter) and his senior quote in the high school yearbook: “The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out”? How is Gilley his father’s son, and in what ways does his character diverge from his father’s? How would you measure Junior’s character when all is said and done?
7. Does Henry really want to help Katie and her family? If so, why does he only reveal bits of information at a time, and never the whole story as he knows it? Do you see it as a failing on his part that he is so afraid to tell what he knows? How does the complex relationship between love for another and hatred for himself play out in his actions?
8. Many of the characters in this novel speak of love at one point or another. What are the kinds of love we see in The Bright Forever, and how does the idea of love motivate these people? In the end, which love resonates the most for you?
9. How significant do you find the setting of this novel to be? Could it just as easily have occurred in earlier or later decades? Elsewhere in the country? Would it have the same impact? Why do you think Martin chose to place the action when and where he did?
10. Why does Tom Evers never pursue an investigation of what happened to Raymond Wright?
11. Throughout the novel, there is the looming question of guilt in the matter of what happened to Katie Mackey. Where do you think the blame lies? To what degree are Henry, Raymond, Clare, Gilley, Mr. and Mrs. Mackey, and even the townspeople responsible? Is there one single unforgivable act that someone commits that seals her fate, or does a combination of coincidences, actions, and inactions lead to her death?
12. What do you find to be the most significant moment in the novel, in terms of the character of Henry Dees? Is there a place where you can see that he has learned from the tragedy that he played such a large part in? Or are you left with the impression that he simply continues his life on the same path of inaction, fear, and shame?
13. What does the title The Bright Forever mean to you? What is the “bright forever” the song refers to, in the context of this story?
On the night it happened—July 5—the sun didn’t set until 8:33. I went back later and checked the weather cartoon on the Evening Register’s front page: a smiling face on a fiercely bright sun. I checked because it was the heart of summer, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that long light and all the people who were out in it; I’d seen them sitting on porches, drinking Pepsis and listening to WTHO’s Top Fifty Countdown on transistor radios. I knew they were getting a laugh out of Peanuts or Hi and Lois in the newspaper, thrilling to the adventures of Steve Canyon. Cars were driving along High Street—Trans-Ams and GTOs, Mustangs and Road Runners, Chargers and Barracudas. Some of them were on their way to the drive-in theater east of town—a twin bill, Summer of ’42 and Bless the Beasts and Children. Others went downtown. Teenage boys were ducking into the Rexall or the new Super Foodliner to pick up a pack of Marlboros or Kools. Couples were strolling around the courthouse square, lollygagging after supper at the Coach House or a steak and a cold beer at the Top Hat Inn. They were window-shopping, the ladies admiring the new knee-high boots at Bogan’s Shoe Store, high school girls looking at the first wire-rim glasses at Blank’s Optical, the flared-leg pantsuits at Helene’s Dress Shop, the friendship bracelets and engagement sets at Lett’s Jewelry.
Enough time and opportunity, and yet no one could stop what was going to happen.
We were just an itty-bitty town in Indiana, on the flat plain beyond the rolling hills of the Hoosier National Forest—a glassworks town near the White River, which twisted and turned to the southwest before emptying into the Wabash and running down to the Ohio. That day, a Wednesday, the temperature had gotten up to ninety-three and the humidity had settled in and left everyone limp with trying. The air held in the smell of heat from the furnaces at the glassworks, the dead fish stink from the river, the sounds of people’s living: ice cubes clinking in glasses, car mufflers rattling, screen doors creaking, mothers calling children to come in.
In the evening, when the breeze picked up enough to stir the leaves on the courthouse lawn’s giant oaks and dusk started to fall, the air cooled just enough to make us forget how hot and unforgiving the day had been. After the hours spent working at the glassworks or the stone quarry or the gravel pit, people were glad to be moving about at their own pace, taking their time, letting the coming dark and the rustle of air convince them that soon there might be rain and then the heat would break. I was content to sit at the kitchen table, noodling around with the story problems I planned to use the next day with my summer students, one of whom was Katie Mackey.
Later, there would be a few folks who would step up and say they had something maybe the police ought to know. Their names would be in the newspapers—papers as far away as St. Louis and Chicago—and on the Terre Haute and Indianapolis television stations, people who would be in the notebooks of all the magazine writers who’d come—slick-talking out-of-towners with questions. Newshounds from Inside Detective, Police Gazette. They’d want to know how to find so-and-so.
I’ve never been able to tell this story and my part in it until now, but listen, I’ll say it true: a man can live with something like this only so long before he has to make it known. My name is Henry Dees, and I was a teacher then—a teacher of mathematics and a summer tutor for the children like Katie who needed such a thing. I’m an old man now, and even though more than thirty years have gone by, I still remember that summer and its secrets, and the way the heat was and how the light stretched on into evening like it would never leave. If you want to listen, you’ll have to trust me. Or close the book; go back to your lives. I warn you: this is a story as hard to hear as it is for me to tell.