Zero To Hero — Donna Tartt spins a murder tale in Vermont

Snow Day, Bennington College, 2013

Snow Day, Bennington College, 2013

Murdered—Bunny is dead. He’s lying there at the foot of Mt. Cataract buried by a fateful April snow:

“He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history— state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.”
— From the Prolog of The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Perhaps Bunny died in an accident, a reader might think. But, the 28-year-old narrator confesses that he and three classmates planned and carried out murder in a precipitous ravine cut into the side of Mt. Cataract:

“I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure. […] I remember only too well the long terrible night that lay ahead and the long terrible days and nights that followed, I have only to glance over my shoulder for all those years to drop away and I see it behind me again, the ravine, rising all green and black through the saplings, a picture that will never leave me.”
— From the Prolog of The Secret History, Donna Tartt

The narrator is a Californian named Richard Papen, who won a scholarship to go to prestigious Hampden College. Richard was 19 when he witnessed the murder.

Mt. Cataract and the fatal ravine are fictitious, invented by Donna Tartt, who also created Hampden and Hampden College. However, there are similarities to Ms. Tartt’s alma mater Bennington College, and Southern Vermont College, on the eastern slopes of Mt. Anthony in Bennington, is a ringer for the murder site. Johanna Trew, a WordPress blogger, identified some other interesting connections to Bennington in her review of The Secret History for Book Drum, and noted that Bennington also appeared in fiction as Camden College in The Rules of Attraction (1998) by Bret Easton Ellis and in From Rockaway (1987) by Jill Eistenstadt.

Starting from zero, Ms. Tartt gives the story away in the Prolog when she tells the reader who was murdered and who did it. But, she then built a convincing story about the murderers and the victim. Her novel is about why not what.

In one of the best ironies of the novel, one of the young murderers speaks at Bunny’s funeral. He recites this poem by A. E Housman:

WITH rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
— A Shropshire Lad. 1896. (Bartleby)

The Secret History became a surprise best seller in 1992. Now, fifteen years later, Tartt has a new novel, The Goldfinch, climbing the best-seller lists, and her debut novel is still in print.

This is Carto’s Library Blog, and I am Carto, a retired tech worker in Palo Alto, CA. My library is my home where there are a good number of books scattered about (something to read in every room). More and more, my library is finding its way t0 my iPad and Macbook— eBooks from Kindle, and Kobo; more from Google Play, and, of course, I have the Apple iBook app running too. I like reading books, and I like to write about what I read. I have no aspirations of becoming a Hero, but I think that WordPress is a great place to blog so I support the “Zero to Hero” challenge.

Talk about a writer who actually went from Zero to Hero, Ms. Tartt sets the standard for all of us. So, read her novels. You could read Tartt’s current best-seller, The Goldfinch, or go back to the time before cell phones and read her very first effort, The Secret History. Either book is a winner.


About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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2 Responses to Zero To Hero — Donna Tartt spins a murder tale in Vermont

  1. CP says:

    Four classmates, not three: Richard (which makes five), Charles, Francis, Camilla and Henry.

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