Ava and Fred Robbins grew up surrounded by woods and lovely places to explore. They had the freedom to wander, as their parents schooled them at home in an experimental fashion. Their parents believed that the best learning comes through experience. No Book but the World: A Novel is set somewhere in upstate New York, in a place called Batter Hollow. Clustered around the compound that is now a defunct school were buildings with names like The Annex and Art Barn. After the school shut down, families lived in the cottages, including the Robbins and Manseau families. Dennis and Kitty were two of the Manseau children.But something was not right with Fred. And apparently there was no diagnosis, as this freedom also extended to a life without labels.
Now Ava and Fred are adults, and a tragedy results in Fred’s arrest. Ava leaves her home and her husband for a time to drive up to Perdu, where he is in jail, to try to help “explain” Fred to his attorney. But in the process, she realizes that much of her childhood is unexplainable.
Narrated in four sections from the perspectives of Ava, Dennis (her husband), Kitty (her best friend & sister-in-law), and Fred, we discover bits and pieces of what that world was like through their eyes and their memories of that time.
Was it really all that idyllic? What emotions are now aroused for each of them as Fred’s situation turns even more serious?
I liked Ava, who suffered from a feeling of responsibility for Fred, something that had informed her life even in adulthood. Dennis, as Kitty’s older brother, had seemed an unlikely spouse for Ava, but he had a special understanding of her experiences. His kindness and empathy made him a likeable character. However, I found Kitty to be condescending, with a superior and antagonistic attitude. Her master’s degree in psychology lent an expertise to her approach, but sometimes it seemed to merely hide her arrogance. I had to wonder if she was covering something through this defensive posture. In the flashbacks to their childhood, there was a kind of cruelty in Kitty’s behavior, perhaps covering her discomfort with Fred and with the Robbins approach to parenting.
As the story winds down, inexplicable events turn everything we thought we’d sorted into more of a puzzle. With just a few words, the author turns it all upside down. As we contemplate what life was like for these characters, we learn some conclusions in Ava’s voice, as she dismisses the notion of freedom, in terms of her parents’ efforts to provide it:
“I see now they were mistaken. We are none of us free. We are tethered by our connections to other people, those we know as well as those we will never meet. What tethers us is our ability–our responsibility–to imagine them, to fathom their lives, their circumstances, what we have in common, what sets us apart.”