Raising a daughter in isolation tests father’s resolve in ‘These Silent Woods’

Kimi Cunningham Grant is the author of "These Silent Woods." 
Courtesy of Ann Bickel
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Kimi Cunningham Grant is the author of "These Silent Woods." Courtesy of Ann Bickel

Credit: PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES ANN M BICKEL

Credit: PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES ANN M BICKEL

Author Kimi Cunningham Grant considers whether love is enough to be a good parent.

Award-winning poet Kimi Cunningham Grant places vivid, accessible characters against a backdrop of deep Appalachian isolation in her heartrending and evocative thriller, “These Silent Woods.”

For nearly a decade, Cooper and his little girl, Finch, have lived in a “small cabin tucked in a hundred thousand acres of woods.” Their only contact with the outside world occurs once a year when Cooper’s Army buddy visits to stock them with enough supplies to survive the harsh and desolate winters.

Finch, a precocious and curious 8-year-old with a “general propensity to get attached to people,” is devastated when her dad’s friend doesn’t arrive one winter. Cooper is distraught as well because it forces him to venture beyond the safety of their protected life and face the world they’ve hidden from since shortly after Finch’s birth.

Grant slowly rachets up the tension as the narrative weaves back and forth through time. Utilizing taut, laconic prose, the story bounces between the father and daughter’s struggle to survive their present predicament and the series of events that landed them in seclusion following the loss of Finch’s mother. As their complex reality unfurls, an emotionally driven mystery propels the story forward.

Cooper is a complicated man. Three Army tours in Afghanistan have left him prone to paranoia and panic attacks. He has a history of seeing people who aren’t there and is running from something horrible. He knows Finch is paying a price for his choices, that she is growing up “without certain facets of life that people consider to be central to an American childhood,” including friends, a formal education and electricity.

At the same time, Cooper’s determination to do right by Finch is clear. The primary tenet he teaches her is that “there’s a right and a wrong, and you have to do what’s right.” Her respect is of the utmost importance to him, and her health and wellbeing is his primary concern.

The love Cooper carries for his daughter manifests in unexpected and endearing ways. Every night he sews a few more patches of her baby clothes into a quilt so she can always “remember those early days of our time out here.”

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"These Silent Woods" by Kimi Cunningham Grant Courtesy of Minotaur Books

Credit: Handout

"These Silent Woods" by Kimi Cunningham Grant
Courtesy of Minotaur Books
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"These Silent Woods" by Kimi Cunningham Grant Courtesy of Minotaur Books

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

As the story progresses, Grant uses the depth of Cooper and Finch’s relationship to challenge a range of moral and ethical expectations surrounding childrearing. What does it mean to be a good parent? Is a person who can provide a traditional lifestyle and privilege more desirable to raise a child, regardless of affection or biology? How far is going too far to protect a person one loves? Grant answers these questions in probing and conflicting ways while drawing the reader deeper into the enigma of their situation.

Finch is clever and easy to root for. Yet she is hardly a victim. Her ability to express herself through Walt Whitman’s poetic verse is a marvel, and like many children, she can be manipulative and dramatic. One night she concocts an amusing litany of excuses to avoid being sent to bed: “Her belly hurts, she thinks she may have sprained her ankle, she has a hangnail.” But at her heart she’s a little girl who is hungry for friendship and contact with the outside world.

Grant paints a compelling portrait of the ramifications of lonesomeness in both Finch’s and Cooper’s lives. Finch develops a fanciful imagination and a desire to go exploring on her own. Cooper knows he can’t stifle her forever, but he fears for her safety while she is alone in the desolate wilderness. Thoughts of his own outcome once Finch is grown and gone linger in the back of his mind.

The only person other than her father Finch interacts with is their mysterious neighbor, Scotland. A hardened, retired Marine, he materializes randomly in their yard, “just shows up, appears out of nowhere, like a ghost, like fog.”

Cooper can’t pinpoint Scotland’s motivations, doesn’t trust him and doesn’t want him around. But Scotland knows about Cooper’s hidden past and uses it as unspoken leverage to remain in their lives. And Finch adores Scotland, all the more so after he gives her a kitten. Neglecting to first obtain Cooper’s approval, however, is one more in a long line of exchanges that rouse Cooper’s suspicions as to the nature of Scotland’s interest in Finch.

While on a hunting expedition one day, Cooper discovers their forest hideaway has been breached. He suspects somebody is aware of where they are, a knowledge that could bring everything he holds dear crashing down. Meanwhile, Finch knows more than she’s letting on. Cooper is forced to open up their lives to greater interaction with the outside world until “all the secrets I’ve kept, this strange and precarious and beautiful life we’ve built, it’s crumbling.”

In the heart-wrenching climax, Cooper must decide what kind of man he truly is. And what kind of person he wants his daughter to grow up to be.

Far more about the durability of human connection than a twisty thrill ride, “These Silent Woods” portrays a wonderfully complex father-daughter relationship threaded with an undercurrent of suspense. With an ending that is utterly unpredictable and satisfyingly conclusive, Grant provides an unexpected answer to Cooper’s long-held belief that “you can never really be free from the things you’ve done.”


FICTION

“These Silent Woods”

by Kimi Cunningham Grant

Minotaur Books

288 pages, $27.99