In her acclaimed debut novel, Beth Hunter McHugh tells the story of a family whose idyllic life is suddenly ruptured. This elegantly written story is set in the 1960s in a university town in Montana, where 13-year-old Grace and her younger sister, Franny, live with their parents, Nora and David, both professors – Nora teaches law and David is an actor and drama professor.
The girls adore their parents, quietly observing their lovely mother as she reads or writes poetry, or watching their father rehearse plays with his students. Through Grace’s eyes, life is almost perfect. Until Ivan, a young acting student, arrives to stay for an undetermined period of time.
Grace notices changes in the dynamics of the household, and one day, a suitcase is packed, a bus ticket procured, and life will never be the same.
Nora and the girls move to an old farmhouse on the edge of town. “I believe we liked the sense that we had somehow escaped – the nice house, the manicured lawns, the watching faces. There was more room here and the calming sense of living closer to the earth.” At the farm, the family reconnects with a man and his daughter who hold mysterious ties to their past. The rekindled friendship brings both joy and heartbreak to both families.
Grace and Franny adjust to their new life, and the challenges of being teenage girls and fitting in. They make a game of telling curious people about their past, changing their story to suit the inquirer, while their mother goes about gently, gracefully reinventing herself. This is a story of a family living on a razor’s edge of secrecy and truth, and through Grace’s eyes, what it means to grow up in such a world.
Author Deidre McNamer describes The Actor as “a multi-layered love story [that] cracks your heart; it opens your eyes.”
“I gaped open-mouthed at its wisdom and beauty,” writes author Debra Magpie Earling. “McHugh is the literary heir to Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig.”
McHugh, a graduate of Helena High School who lives in Hamilton, received her MFA from The University of Montana and teaches high school English. This book was a “runaway” winner of Riverbend Publishing’s inaugural Meadowlark Award, presented in 2015.
– Judy Shafter