Light from a Distant Star

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Published by: Crown
Pages: 336
ISBN13: 978-0307451866



Light from a Distant Star is a gripping story of family love with a brutal murder at its heart and an unforgettable hero.

It is early summer and Nellie Peck is on the cusp of adolescence – gangly, awkward, full of questions, but keenly observant and wiser than many of the adults in her life. The person she most admires is her father, Benjamin, a scholarly man of great integrity. But Peck’s Hardware, his family’s century old store, is failing fast, forcing Nellie’s mother, Sandy, back to work as a hairdresser after years at home with their three children. Nellie’s older half-sister, Ruth, is caught up in the teenage whirlpool of parties, pot, and sex, when she secretly launches a disturbing search for her neglectful birth father. Often saddled through the long, hot days with her timid younger brother, Henry, Nellie is determined to toughen him up. And herself as well.

Three strangers enter Nellie’s once protected, small town life. Brooding Max Devaney is an ex-con who works in her cranky grandfather’s junkyard. Reckless Bucky Saltonstall has just arrived from New York City to live with his elderly grandparents. And pretty Dolly Bedelia is a young stripper who rents the family’s small, rear apartment and becomes the titillating focus of Nellie’s shameless eavesdropping.

When violence erupts in the lovely Peck house, the prime suspect seems obvious. Certain she knows the real killer’s identity Nellie is soon silenced by fear and the threat of scandal. The truth, as she sees it, is shocking and unthinkable. Her last, best hope for justice is the looming murder trial. Finally, with everyone’s eyes riveted on her in the courtroom, Nellie finds herself seized with doubt and compromised by moral confusion.

No one will listen. No one believes her, and a man’s life hangs in the balance. In this moving evocation of innocence lost, Nellie Peck struggles to stand up for what is right, for the truth she’s been taught to defend – even at the cost of her family’s well-being.

Raised to believe in honor, Nellie Peck is every inch her father’s daughter. Benjamin Peck is an honorable man and it is his dignified example that informs his daughter’s life – and always has. But Benjamin Peck’s grand illusion is in thinking the world a good place because he wants it to be. Needing goodness in those closest to him, he sees no evil – not even when his daughter confronts him with its shocking existence.

Truth denied can exact a deadly price. And this is the burden Nellie must endure as she discovers that the world isn’t black and white, just painfully complicated. Wanting to be strong, trying to “get tough,” she finds herself trapped in a grownup world of conflicting motives and selfish desires.

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"Morris' finely crafted prose - simple and lyrical - captures perfectly that sliver of pre-adolescence when the very world around us seems to shudder and shift, when the adults we admire suddenly reveal their flaws, and everything we treasure seems to be slipping away. The journey of Nellie (Peck) recalls the central thread of "To Kill a Mockingbird," where violence and tragedy also propel Scout Finch into a deeper understanding of human nature.  Morris ... nimbly laces her latest novel with a growing sense of dread ..."
—The Associated Press by Monica Rhor

“A timeless and timely look at small town life….Morris' page-turner, (which evokes To Kill a Mockingbird) will satisfy her fans and send new readers searching for her earlier titles.”
Publishers Weekly

“Mary McGarry Morris doesn't so much tell a story as spin a delicate and powerful web. With her elegant prose, beautifully drawn characters, and perfect pitch dialog, she lured me in.  And with her intense and gripping plot, she had me ensnared.  I was in love with the sensitive, smart and plucky Nellie from the very first moment I met her and I'll be thinking of her for a good long time.  Light From a Distant Star is a wonderful, powerful novel not to be missed.”
–Lisa Unger, New York Times bestselling author of Fragile

"Morris possesses the ability to speak for those who struggle to find a voice in greater society while creating an intriguing plot to keep the pages rolling."
–Adult Books 4 Teens

"... this heart-wrenching novel is a moving and powerful story of the loss of innocence."
–StaticMultimedia/Casey Gans

 " ... a great read, with well-drawn characters, and a thought-provoking conclusion."
–Brodart Vibe's Blog

"It's impossible to set aside 'Light from a Distant Star' once you begin.  Mary McGarry Morris deftly transports readers to Springvale, a small town where we meet 13-year-old Nellie.  Her journey makes for a riveting read ... "
-The Missourian by Book Editor, Chris Stuckenschneider


Light from a Distant Star began as stories usually do – with questions.

Can Truth exist objectively?

Can Truth exist without proof of it?

Is Truth, like a supreme being, a posited belief or theory that can exist without proof, without scientific proof?

Or is Truth subjective, existing to varying degrees only in the experience of each individual?

Is it acceptable to tell or allow a lie in order to live in the Truth?

What is the difference between literal (actual) Truth and ideal (conceptual) Truth? Which is more necessary? More moral?

What if you’re the one person who knows what happened, but you’re only a thirteen year old girl and your own family doesn’t want to hear the truth?

A few years ago I saw two exuberant athletes bump fists after a winning game with the declaration, “Girl power!” Girl power - oxymoron, challenge, or reality? But hearing it got me thinking about what being female means. And about the strength of being a girl during the powerlessness of childhood. And the courage it takes for a girl to get tough and stay tough. And the confidence it takes for a girl to be heard when the softer female voice can be so easily overlooked, dismissed, drowned out, ignored. And how after a while a girl may come to accept this. Though in these more politically correct times she may never actually be told to rein it in or tone it down, she knows. She sees how it goes. And little by little she learns. She holds back. She defers. She begins to know her place. She sees that being polite, being nice is a lot less confrontational than being right. Easier, and far more acceptable.

Then came a day, as so often happens when enough elements were present, the nagging questions and inner turmoil, the distracting thoughts that had nothing to do with what I’d been working on – and there she was. Nellie Peck. Her shoot-from-the-hip voice firing away in my head trying to tell her side of it. Raised to be respectful and honorable, but quickly discovering how surrounded she is by hypocrisy, she struggles to believe in herself and to trust her own judgment. She is at that most vulnerable place in a young person’s life when everything around her seems to be changing, especially the dynamics of her close-knit family. Money is a problem. It affects everything and everyone she loves, even, she begins to see, her mother’s respect and feelings for Nellie’s dear father.

Nellie is ripe for a hero when into her grandfather’s dark barn comes Max Devaney with his dog Boone. Alone and unknowable, impenetrable, a wounded, hounded creature, Max seems to come from another time. In his brute strength and courage he is unlike anyone she has ever known and she wants his friendship and trust. She has been raised on principle and virtue and the importance of seeking out the best in people so it is almost inevitable that she will be drawn to Max’s darkness and pain. In his inability to communicate with her he seems both mystery and force, an ideal only she can protect.

Nellie’s dilemma is that she believes as sincerely in one man’s innocence as she does in another man’s guilt without real, tangible, scientific proof of either. So how can she destroy one man in order to save another? And this is the haunting question posed by her father, Benjamin, who, in Nellie’s moral struggle, is the voice of trust and optimism and by her mother, Sandy, who is the voice of fear and necessity.

Nellie admits that her knowledge of the accused, Max Devaney, (that is, “his history”) began with their meeting in the barn. If he is truly the sum of what she feels (her perception and her interpretation of experience) about him (her instinct) along with what she has seen of his actions, then she is admitting to a subjective truth, one that is constantly shifting, changing according to the dictates of each individual’s experience. And this can only mean that her sense of truth about the other man, whom she’s known all her life, is as similarly and personally skewed.

In my original notes, the very first words written at the top of the page are “Heroism and Courage. Story told looking back on childhood.” Also in my seemingly random notes is the almost incomprehensible fact that when we look up at the stars we are seeing the past. And that the very light we are experiencing may well be from stars that no longer exist. Swirling through this mix of ideas were memories of my own childhood, particularly the tree house two of my brothers built in our side yard. I remember it as being big and sturdy with room enough for all of us, even though a trip back home some years ago made me realize how small the tree must have been then. But in a child’s life, refuge and safety enhance reality and magnify scale. It was our own structure, our own place to go to in a tree that wasn’t ours on property we only rented like the other tenants in the big old house we lived in on the corner. But that’s how stories grow, the ovule of the past expanding into conflict and characters.

From that tree house we could observe our neighbors, nearby home owners as well as our fellow tenants. One Labor Day when I was probably twelve the apartment in the back of our house was rented out to four or five young women. They were dancers, part of the entertainment that came to the Rutland fairgrounds for ten days at the end of every summer. For any kid the annual Vermont State Fair was the biggest event of the year. And for me having glamorous showgirls living in the back apartment, a wallboard’s thickness away was amazing, the next best thing to the Rockettes or Doris Day or Debbie Reynolds or Sandra Dee. Looking down from the tree house, I was alert to every curtain flutter, every sound through their windows. In spite of my vigilance, however, I never did see or hear much. They performed at night and probably slept during the day. But it didn’t matter. I knew they were beautiful. And talented. They had to be. And very, very nice, and I just knew if one of them happened to look up into the tree house or maybe saw me sitting (posing) on the side steps she’d surely come out and talk to me. All I wanted was … something – I’m still not sure what. But it never happened. My mother said they seemed kind of cheap and not even very pretty in spite of all their heavy makeup and stiff, teased stiff hair when they left for work at night. But I never really believed that. And eventually, the stunning nocturnal dancers forever frozen in my imagination became one doomed young woman. Pretty Dolly Bedelia, as tough as she was sweet, forever trusting the wrong kind of man.

Once again, telling a story is so much more about the things I don’t know than the things I do, each question leading to the next along with the voice that’s always asking, “So then what happened?"