In 1932, a man named Harm Drenth (also known as Harry Powers) was executed. He had been convicted of killing a woman named Dorothy Pressler Lemke in his home of Quiet Dell, West Virginia, but it is thought that he killed dozens if not hundreds of other women. The bodies of Asta Eicher, a widow from Park Ridge, Illinois, and her three children were found in the same grave as Dorothy Lemke.
Author Jayne Anne Phillips was told the story of what happened in Quiet Dell by her mother, who was six years old when her own mother “walked her past the scene of the murders.” Jayne Anne Phillips was inspired by this family connection to write her novel Quiet Dell.
Quiet Dell is well researched and contains many known facts about Drenth and his crimes. It contains a few black and white photos and quotations from newspapers of the time. But it is not true crime nonfiction. It is a fictional retelling.
The book begins in December 1930, focusing on the Eicher family. The narrative is gripping; I was pulled into the story from the start. Asta and her three children prepare for Christmas dinner with their friend and former boarder, Charles O’Boyle. Asta is in desperate financial straits, and although he is gay, Charles wants to marry her and help raise her children. He already considers their family his family and dreams of changing his ways. Asta dreams of the letters she keeps hidden upstairs and of the man who wrote them. The correspondence began through a lonely hearts ad; she hopes to meet him in person in the spring.
The Christmas celebrated in Quiet Dell is a charming look at a loving family. The children put on a play. They enjoy a fine meal and go sledding. The beloved family dog, Duty, participates in most aspects of family life, including the Christmas play. But the sad thread of what the future holds for the family runs underneath the narrative.
Although the narrative is fictional, it is mostly based on real people. That changes after first Asta and then the children are taken away by a man known as “Cornelius Pierson.” Fictional characters are introduced. One of them is a “modern professional woman,” a journalist who covers the trial. She forms a very sudden and lasting attachment to one of the real people depicted in the book, which was a bit jarring. Another fictional character becomes friends with Charles O’Boyle. I wondered whether any relatives of the real people are still alive and what they’d think of the liberties the author takes.
I was very interested in the coverage of the trial, but found the romance heavy-handed and distracting. It reminded me of how I feel about the movie Titanic. There is so much real drama in these stories that the added fictional drama feels unnecessary.
The novel is also a bit fanciful. We are set up from the beginning to know that Annabel, the youngest Eicher child, is special. “You are not like others,” her (fictional) grandmother tells her. “Your dreams see past us.” (p. 8) Indeed, after Annabel is murdered, her spirit remains and narrates some chapters of the story.
This book is well written but will not be to everyone’s taste. I enjoyed it as an alternative to reading a nonfiction retelling, but there’s much speculation, and it’s hard to know what is real and what is made up. I recommend Quiet Dell to people who like books that meld fact and fiction and who enjoy imagining what real people in a sensational event thought and how they felt.
Quiet Dell can be found at the Galesburg Public Library in the adult fiction section under the author’s last name, Phillips. Harry Powers also inspired the 1955 movie The Night of the Hunter starring Robert Mitchum. It is also available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library.