Culver-set novel 'No Place to Hide' - a review

Bestselling British author Susan Lewis on the plane to Chicago earlier this week, ahead of her return visit to Culver to launch her new book -- set in that community -- Saturday evening.
Jeff Kenney
Culver Citizen editor

EDITOR'S NOTE: Best-selling British author Susan Lewis' new book, "No Place to Hide," is now available to purchase in Culver, the community in which a large portion of the novel is set. Copies may be purchased at the Culver Coffee Company on Lake Shore Drive and Café Max on South Main Street. Café Max is also the site of a launch party for the book Saturday evening, Aug. 1, from 6 to 8 p.m. Lewis will also speak at the Culver-Union Twp. Public Library on Monday, Aug. 3 at 5 p.m.

Following is a review of the novel by Culver Citizen editor Jeff Kenney.

When best-selling British author Susan Lewis launches her new, Culver-based novel, "No Place to Hide," Saturday evening, many in the Culver community will have their first chance to read what is arguably the most notable work of fiction centered in Culver in just over a century.

That's not because no works of fiction have been set here (whether by actual name or in fictionalized form) in that many years, but most -- however well done or well received -- have been smaller, locally-authored works, whereas Lewis is something of a household name in England, having had numerous works appear on the London Times best-seller list and aiming for this book, which is published by Random House in the States, to help her break into the US market.

A somewhat comparable work -- and again, I say "arguably" -- might be Meredith Nicholson's "The House of a Thousand Candles," which Nicholson readily acknowledged was inspired by his stay at a (still standing) house on Lake Maxinkuckee, even if geographic names were changed. That book became a blockbuster best-seller (in fact, the best-selling book in America in 1906) and inspired more than one Hollywood version.

Another somewhat high-profile work was Kitchell Webster's "Pass in Review," a 1935 novel set at Culver Military Academy, and there have been a couple of nationally-published juvenile novels set at the Academy and published during the 1950s. A host of fictional works set here arrived within the past decade, as self-publishing and small press publishing became more feasible.

In that sense, Lewis' book is, again, comparable to Nicholson's. She came to Culver from afar, almost by happenstance, and concluded the community was an ideal place to set her next book. Indeed, the Culver community is a sort of "character" in the novel, which has a keen eye on the relevance of place in its characters’ emotional lives, and would have looked noticeably different if set in a different locale.

To be specific, Culver is one of a couple of settings in the novel, which centers on English-born Justine Cantrell and young daughter Tallulah, and their struggles (and triumphs) settling in to this community as part of an effort to escape a terrible situation in the England of Cantrell's past (though strictly speaking, Culver and Lake Maxinkuckee are part of her past, at least within the context of her family background).

Reviewing "No Place to Hide," then, really lends itself to two distinctive angles: one from the perspective of a Culver resident (and newspaper editor), considering Lewis' treatment of the community, and another simply as a reader. Regarding the former, I believe Culver readers will be quite pleased.

I was not familiar with any of Lewis' other works prior to this book, but she apparently has a reputation as a writer who fictionally portrays real places in a manner which may lead readers to either actually visit or at least pine to do so. In fact, Indianapolis Monthly magazine has already penned a page-long feature on Culver, this summer, highlighting Lewis' choice of this community as a stage for much of her novel. And Lewis' Culver is largely the real Culver, down to nearly minute detail including names of businesses, streets, entities and institutions, and events.

This is fleshed out all the more in the fact that the novel hones in on around a year's worth of seasons in Culver, from the obvious summertime setting, to autumn (complete with Culver Fall Fest and Trick or Treating) to a wintertime which includes the Culver Winter Fest and aims to portray the feeling of the rougher "Polar Vortex" of the previous two winters here, complete with characters referencing that benchmark of all awful winters, the blizzard of 1978.

On a personal level, I enjoyed references like those all the more since I recall at least contributing to them by way of several personal and email conversations with Susan Lewis on an array of local topics (last winter among them), and I'm certain other readers will find such local color a pleasure to read. Lewis was overt, in the months leading up to the book's completion, in noting that the characters themselves are not intended to reflect the personalities of their respective Culver counterparts.

The Culver Citizen editor, then, is neither named David Clifton in "real life," nor sporting "messy dark hair," (except perhaps the messy part), "sleepy gray eyes and winning smile," and nor, thankfully, is he widowed. And Culver's chief of police may be many things, but he's not really a Tommy Lee Jones lookalike, as described in the book, and I don't believe he's the father of five kids!

One of the most prominent Culver characters in the book is Cafe Max's (fictional) owner Sallie Jo Osborn (an interesting conglomeration, of course, of actual Culver names), whose persona may bear the marks of some of the folks implied in her name and station in life, but again is clearly fictional. So, too, is the initially mystery-shrouded Lake Maxinkuckee cottage which figures prominently in the plot of the novel, and the family struggles of its lead character. So "No Place to Hide" certainly receives winning marks in its portrayal of Culver in terms of accuracy and breadth.

But what of the book as a work of fiction, were the reader uninterested in the Culver angle?

It's important to note at the outset that Susan Lewis' work seems to fall into a certain genre and aim at a particular audience, and it’s safe to say that audience is women, which no more means that men couldn't enjoy it, than that women couldn't enjoy the works of any number of writers whose target audience is men. But clearly it's written with a female readership in mind.

Further, Lewis' works -- this one included -- fall into the category of what might be called mainstream popular fiction (which is to say, Lewis I think is more interested in writing a page-turner than “the great American novel,” as it were), though she's known as an author whose novels typically include characters wrestling with some set of issues, and if this book is any indication, none of them lightweight.

In fact, once it gets its rhythm, "No Place to Hide" becomes fairly "heavy," aiming as it does to realistically portray the emotional labyrinths through which its lead character journeys in the wake of the sort of tragedy about which most of us only read in the news (though rest assured, the book does point beyond its protagonist's despair). (Readers may wish to know that the following paragraph is as close as this review gets to any plot "spoiler" regarding "No Place to Hide").

One common thread dealt with in both the novel's Culver and British locales is that of violence, and specifically that manifested in murder-suicides, though arguably the motives for two separate incidents in the novel are quite different.

That angle is relevant in looking at the book for a couple of local reasons: first, I can't say how much of an impact Lewis' attendance of a school shooting training exercise -- which was intended to be as close to "real" as possible -- in Culver during her visit last year had on the story, but guns, while not absent in Great Britain, are far rarer than here so I can only assume Lewis' experience of said training was a memorable one.

Secondly, of course, Culver has been touched quite directly by situations at least similar in kind to those in the book, in recent years. I think it's worth noting how different the response was to those real-life incidents here, among residents and those most directly affected, than that of some Culver-based characters in the novel (though again, Lewis is writing fiction here, of course).

Clearly, Lewis intends readers to compare two distinctive but similarly violent incidents in the book, and to ponder the implications of each -- whether one is an act almost of altruism compared to the other...what is the culpability of individuals in light of mental illness, and so on. And the plot points us once again to question the reasons behind the ever-increasing frequency of apparently arbitrary mass shootings in the US and, increasingly, Europe, particularly in light of the surface emotional and material comfort -- which we're told ought to lead us to peace, tranquility, and happiness -- offered in middle and upper class life in such places (which was portrayed thoroughly to create a marked contrast in "No Place to Hide").

That all may relate to another recurring theme of prominence in the book, at least as I perceived it: that of religion, and the transcendence it may or may not offer in the despair of the modern milieu. With Christianity in the Western Hemisphere as much on the decline as it is on the rapid rise in much of the "global south," which is especially true in Europe (though perhaps just as much so on each of America's coasts, as a general rule), it was interesting, to me, to see Lewis' portrayal of it.

On that account I probably come as close to criticism of the work in the book as any facet of it, simply because the intricate detail with which she portrayed Culver's cultural life (among other aspects of the book) seemed absent to me in her portrayal of religion. And for the record, one of the latter "acts" of the novel, for readers engaged in reading it and wondering, does balance out earlier scenes with regards to religion and its practice, for what it's worth.

At the end of the day, it will be interesting to see what potential "ripple" effects "No Place to Hide" will have on Culver in portraying it positively to a wide -- in fact international -- audience. Susan Lewis has a large and devoted following, and I might recommend to any interested Culver reader to "Like" her Facebook page or otherwise tune in to responses to the book from readers "across the pond" encountering Culver and Lake Maxinkcukee for the first time. I expect references to Culver will appear more than once in interviews and other discussions of the book, in the coming months.

I've noticed Culver has a strange way of weaving its way into the consciousness of those touched by it, and of bearing fruit in unexpected ways in art, culture, and life, both near and far. "No Place to Hide" strikes me as one more example of this, and it can at the very least be added to the pantheon of "big" works inspired by this at least geographically “small” place.