The Margo Orlando Littell’s debut novel, Each Vagabond by Name
(2016) is a dark and moody story set in a small Appalachian town that is disturbed when a group of transients settles into the nearby hills and begins stealing from the homes of the town’s residents. The novel focuses on the reaction to the situation by a barkeeper who has done his best to never form any lasting attachments and a woman who sees a younger version of herself in the teenagers who make up the majority of the raiding thieves.
Modern day Shelk is a very small Pennsylvania mining town in a valley of the Appalachian Mountains. Residents like to imagine it has been bypassed by the changing times, and spend most of their days in well-established routines marked by traditions and rites that go back several generations. Everyone knows everyone else, nothing much changes, and the lives of everyone are discussed in a chain of slowly circulating gossip.
One of the gathering spots in town is a log cabin that has been turned into a bar. It used to be run by a local named Hawk, but when he retired years ago, he left the bar to Zaccariah Ramsy, a Vietnam vet who lost an eye in a bar brawl during his tour of duty. When he first came back from Vietnam, his wife left him, taking their baby Liza with her. Ramsy didn’t get to raise Liza and hasn’t been in her life for a very long time, but now that Liza is a married adult, she has sought Ramsy out to try to reconnect. He is considering selling the bar and moving to where Liza lives. Ramsy is now a middle-aged man, but despite his many years in Shelk, he still feels like a stranger in the town. Tending bar is the perfect occupation for him: He gets to chat with the regulars, but never really reveal any part of himself.
When the novel opens, town gossip is abuzz with news that a series of thefts have taken place. Each chapter opens with a description of one of these crimes from the thief’s perspective. Although none of the thieves are named or identified, being in their heads as they steal gives the reader a sense of them as people. Eventually, the town’s residents put together what has been happening: A group of mostly teenage runaways, led by an aggressive and malevolent adult man, have taken up residence somewhere in the nearby hills and have taken to breaking into Shelk residents’ homes to steal what they need.
Almost immediately, Shelk’s sleepy, calm atmosphere transforms into one of fear, paranoia, and a sense of righteous anger. Although no one can figure out exactly where the gang is holed up or the identities of its members, the townspeople quickly resort to racialized name-calling, referring to the thieves as “gypsies.” The residents split into several groups: Some want to take steps to insulate the community even more from outsiders, some want to seek retribution by going into the hills to find and confront the transients, and a very small group wants to empathetically reach out to the teens.
Ramsy’s bar becomes a central meeting place for the disgruntled Shelk community, but Ramsy himself is ambivalent about the teenagers’ depredations. On the one hand, of course the victims of the thefts have a valid reason to want justice for those responsible. On the other hand, Ramsy feels a sense of kinship with the lost, rootless gang that he sees as just confused kids.
At about the same time that the robberies begin, Stella Vale, a woman with whom Ramsy had a short romantic relationship, reappears in town and begins hanging out in the bar. Her story is as sad as Ramsy’s. Fifteen years earlier, Stella’s baby Lucy disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and Stella has never been able to get over the loss. She and Ramsy initially bonded over their shared experience of losing their children, but when Liza reached out to Ramsy, Stella couldn’t handle that he might establish a connection with his daughter while her own baby remained missing, so she broke up with him. They remain friends, however, always bonded through their shared grief.
Several of the townspeople form relationships with members of the homeless teen gang. Ramsy connects with JT, a young man who first comes to the bar hungry and cold. Ramsy sees a bit of himself in the outwardly tough, intelligent teenager. Stella befriends Adrienne, a teenager in the group who has a baby. Stella half believes that Adrienne could actually be the baby that was stolen from her. Meanwhile, Kitty, a townswoman begins an affair with Emilian, the violent and actively criminal adult leader of the gang. Kitty is married to Jack, who leads the town faction that wants to actually find and fight the gang, and her actions stem from a desire for drama and excitement in her life.
Tensions continue to escalate seemingly without a way to escape the coming violence. Ramsy urges JT to ask Emilian to move the group elsewhere, but JT declares that Emilian would never agree to this loss of face. Eventually, Kitty’s flaunting of her affair leads to a violent confrontation in the hills with unforeseen collateral damage: JT is killed in the fight.
Shelk residents view Ramsy and Stella with suspicion because of their closeness to some of the teenagers; Ramsy’s mourning of JT is particularly galling for some. Nevertheless, the novel ends on an uplifting note, as Ramsy, Stella, Adrienne, and her baby form a makeshift family that will do their best to live in the Shelk community. No one in town will admit that anything they did in the hills was wrong, but in their slow acceptance of this new family unit is a healthy dose of contrition.