What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to love? These seemingly simple questions become immeasurably complex the moment we try to bring them into real life where human beings must contend with one another, each of us full of foibles, insecurities, desires, beliefs, dreams and heartaches. Meredith Hall, who splits her time between Maine and California, and whose memoir, “Without A Map,” was concerned with the tensions between good intentions, love and the capacity to cause harm, has now turned her quiet and stirring prose to fiction. Her debut novel, “Beneficence,” brings readers achingly close to these ultimately existential questions of goodness and love by focusing on a single family’s unspooling.

Cover courtesy of Godine

We meet the Senters in 1947, their life firmly established on their dairy farm near the fictional town of Alstead, Maine. Tup and Doris Senter married in 1933 after being introduced by Doris’s cousin, and although they planned to go to college, he to become an engineer and Doris to become a teacher, Tup’s father died soon after, leaving behind the Senter family farm. With no money left for his schooling, Tup, the son who was supposed to get out and away from what his father saw as a burdensome legacy, was the only one of his siblings willing to take up the mantel. Doris, who had grown up a city girl in the fictional Colebrook near Portland, was young and in love and eager to learn. They made a good team, and though the work certainly wasn’t easy, they managed to bring the neglected farm back to full working order. At the book’s opening, they have three children: Sonny, Dodie and Beston.

Doris, the first of three rotating narrators, acknowledges how sheltered and safe they feel: “Sometimes I think, We’re a little family on an island here, protected from all the world’s problems. There’s been a terrible war since we moved here, and another war is brewing now on the other side of the world, but we just keep milking the cows and birthing the calves and planting the seeds in the garden. The children go to school and do their chores and then go off to play in this wide open space, or they sit and read in the front room by the stove or in the hammock on the porch on a nice day. We are apart from the world here and make our lives the way we want them to be.”

Dodie, the second narrator, is sensitive to the pains of others, even as a child. She recalls the peace of sitting near the creek with her brothers, hearing only the water running but not the weaned calves screaming for their mothers, or the truck being loaded with up with steers sent to slaughter, nor the “radio on after supper telling us about the children in Japan who are being born with too many hands at the ends of their arms or no legs at all.” But Dodie, like her mother, is happy and safe on the farm.

Tup, the third narrator, seems less at ease in this life, even as he embraces its work completely and finds comfort in it. The shadow of the path he was going to take hangs over him at times, and his father’s eventual hatred for the land haunts him, a future he’d like to avoid. He is always measuring himself and his goodness, turning his actions over in his mind, trying to reconcile moments when he spoke harshly to his wife or children with the immense, immeasurable love he feels for them.

The Senters are indeed an insular family, practicing a kind of magical thinking: If we are together and love one another, no harm can come to us. Yet for the Senters, as for so many of us, it’s those we love most, those most intimate to us, who may cause us the most harm, even unintentionally. When an accident occurs in the house and one of the boys is killed, the family begins to collapse in grief. Doris lives in a nearly mute fugue state for years while Dodie and Tup, each sick with a guilt they cannot express aloud, try to care for the family and keep the farm running. Years later, it’s an outsider — that which Doris once most feared — who sees the family’s pain for what it is, and finally voices it: “All of you. Call this what it is. For God’s sake. Call it grief, not guilt! A tragedy. Call it what it is and leave it behind. You have to leave this behind.”

“Beneficence” is a glorious book, its joy as quietly beautiful as the tragedy at its center echoes loudly through the lives of its characters. Hall acknowledges that each life is very small, on its own, but that the love we each bear for one another is immense, our capacity for it endless.

Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer working on her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” was published by Dutton this past spring. 

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