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Graduate Rickstad returns to 'Reap' reward from first novel

"Reap," University MFA graduate Eric Rickstad's first novel, is a striking story - realistically apt in plot and sparing of all niceties - that is sure to captivate readers.

Equally captivating, however, is the success that "Reap" has enjoyed since Viking Penguin published the book two months ago. When he returns to the University on Tuesday to give a reading at the University Bookstore, Rickstad will have many eager fans attending.

"I just had this feeling Eric's book would catch someone's eye," University Creative Writing Program Administrator Lisa Spaar said.

Like its coming-of-age plot, the language of the rough-and-tumble "Reap" is clear and descriptive, explaining without embellishment and matching the tone of the novel to its harsh setting (the "Northeast Kingdom" of Vermont).

The life of Jessup Burke, a 16-year-old dreamer with a worshipping mother and a talent for fishing, is changed instantly when he meets two people: Reg Cumber, a pot-growing, angry and embittered ex-convict, and his sister Marigold Cumber, the 23-year-old wife of a damaged and no-good husband.

Rickstad's characters are believable because of the spare and honest descriptions he provides for them.

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    Then there is the innocent, naïve Jessup, who smiles "genuinely ... because of the smile on his mother's face," though he had "been embarrassed as the other boys glanced over from baiting hooks."

    Rickstad does not sacrifice plot for language and descriptions, however.

    The secrets that the characters harbor in their hidden lives are twisted and disconcerting enough to closely engage the reader in a "what happens next?" train of thought.

    Excerpts from "Reap"
    at the University Bookstore
    Tonight, 8 p.m.
    Eric Rickstad
    also read by:
    Carrie Brown
    Greg Bottoms
    Karen Salyer McElmurray

    However, the novel still moves slowly enough to arouse interest without becoming a suspenseful drama. Its plot serves as a catalyst for the discovery of secrets and "dark sides" of all the characters.

    Jessup's innocent love affair with a local girl whose kiss "made his face burn" and was "so soft, so full and surprising Jessup hadn't been able to bring himself to kiss her back," is replaced with an eye-opening, loss of innocence scene with Marigold later in the novel.

    The novel's underlying violence contributes to the restraint of thunderous force within all characters and their personal lives.

    "Listen," Marigold said, calling Reg back over. "Don't get that kid high. He's a good kid," she says when leaving Jessup with Reg.

    "I was too once," Reg replies.

    The scene is full of foreshadowing while still revealing the rough obstacles the characters must endure.

    Rickstad is successful in his story because he melds plot and language with a clarity that becomes only more crystalline as the book progresses, though the very sordidness of the tale is readily apparent.

    The New York Times Book Review has hailed Rickstad's debut as "grimly poetic" and a "remarkable evocation of the territory, the gothic tangle of native forest and exotic cash crop that mirrors the claustrophobic inner landscapes."

    There is a "current, pop culture darkness" about the book that "really struck a chord," Spaar said.

    Also reading on Tuesday are three other University MFA graduates, including Carrie Brown, whose novel "Rose's Garden" won the 1999 Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Award.

    "A magical first novel ... both luminous and wise," The New York Times Book Review said of "Rose's Garden."

    Another graduate of the program is Karen Salyer McElmurray, author of the novel "Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven."

    McElmurray's novel is "a powerful, memorable, and surprising love story. Vivid and sensuous and deeply moving. Not since the late William Goyen has any novelist that I know of made such wonderful, haunting music out of our speech and our deepest hopes and desires," said George Garrett, University Henry Hoyns Professor of English, on

    Greg Bottom, another former University MFA student, will be reading on Tuesday as well. Bottom's book will be published in the fall, Spaar said.

    "All of our writers are very strong," she said.


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