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The Vagabonds    by Nicholas Delbanco order for
by Nicholas Delbanco
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Warner, 2004 (2004)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Nicholas Delbanco's The Vagabonds moves back and forth in time to show the repercussions down the years of a 1916 romantic encounter in a rustic farmhouse - 'a prologue to nothing and drama with no second act' - and the legacy that resulted from it.

It all begins with the legendary 'Vagabonds' - famed industrialists Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, inventor Thomas Edison, and naturalist John Burroughs - who were in the habit of travelling the countryside 'in some style', sleeping on the ground and trading salty stories. This time, their wandering takes them to a Saratoga Springs campsite, where they host Mr. and Mrs. Dancey and their 'lissome' daughter Elizabeth. It's soon apparent that Firestone's gregarious employee, Peter Barclay, is intrigued by the young woman, who appears to reciprocate. Feeling a degree of responsibility for the outcome, Edison, Firestone and Ford donate shares to set up a small trust for Elizabeth's offspring and their descendants.

Back and forth through the novel, Delbanco spends time with Elizabeth, her daughter Alice, and Alice's three children (only slowly explaining the puzzle of why the trust remains unspent.) Present day events bring brother and sisters together to cope with their mother's death, funeral, and reading of the will. Joanna runs a deteriorating Cape Cod B&B, copes with volatile teen daughter 'Leah-Artemisia', and has a sporadic, unsatisfactory relationship with an uncouth tenant. Claire seems to have a happy and successful existence in an Ann Arbor mansion, with husband Jim and two daughters. The youngest sibling, David, is an artist, whose life and loves appear aimless, and who, at the time of his mother's death, lives in California.

Threads run through the novel - of young women who make poor choices; of desertion and the sudden, violent death of spouses; of an old Saratoga Springs farmhouse steeped in history; and of enduring family connections. I especially enjoyed the latter aspect of the novel, as three siblings whom life has distanced from each other, renew and enrich their childhood bonds, the catalyst being the surprising legacy of The Vagabonds.

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