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Scott Dominic Carpenter makes a France-Minnesota connection

In his novel, “Theory of Remainders,” the Northfield writer conjures the elegant gloom of rural France as a middle-aged American psychiatrist tries to settle questions from his past.

It seems hard for Minnesota authors to avoid letting a little regional air into their stories. Lakes and prairies, not to mention long cold winters, evocatively convey a sense of this place.

But fiction is a form of escape, and there’s no rule saying you have to stay here.

Scott Dominic Carpenter didn’t. In his new novel, “Theory of Remainders” (Winter Goose Publishing) the Northfield writer conjures the elegant gloom of rural France as Philip Adler, a middle-aged American psychiatrist, tries to settle questions from his past.

The France-Minnesota connection is seldom made in literature, but Carpenter sees it when traveling country roads.

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“For this book I worked hard to reproduce the spirit of Normandy, and I spent quite a bit of time in Rouen, Yvetot and other locations. But half of the manuscript was written in Minnesota,” he says.

“In the late afternoons, after a day of writing, I’d take off on my bicycle, wending my way through country roads, and every now and again there would be a bend of road or a stand of trees that reminded me of Normandy.”

That French connection has won him a nomination for the American Library in Paris Award, which is given to the “best book about France or a French-American encounter.”

“I’m guessing that mine falls in that second category, as Philip’s story is nothing if not a French-American encounter,” says Carpenter, who teaches in the department of French and Francophone Studies at Carleton College. He considers France a second home and has a keen understanding of the French culture — and the cultural divide.

Scott Dominic Carpenter
Scott Dominic Carpenter

“Foreign language is an uncanny thing: It can make a non-native speaker feel stupid, humiliated. But it’s also liberating. One finds a way to express things one couldn’t say in one’s mother tongue,” he says. “Everyone who has traveled abroad — in France or elsewhere — has experienced both struggles and triumphs, and thus can identify with Philip Adler.”  

In the novel, Adler must navigate the nuances of a second language, as well as nonsensical French bureaucracy, waypoints that have been altered to confuse and his ex-wife’s frustrating family before he can even begin to sort out the real puzzle: Where is the body of his daughter, murdered 16 years earlier?

Carpenter does a masterful job of conjuring a complicated psychological and cultural landscape. The exotic locale only heightens the mystery, as Carpenter dips into regional history to show how an entire town can be shaped by the burden of grief.

As Adler explores the connection between his own loss in a place where bodies and munitions from World War II are still surfacing, he discovers that the locals have a strange amnesia when it comes to helping this outsider out, and he must sort out a puzzle that only begins in the unstable mind of the killer.

“My goal is to show how people come up with different strategies for covering over the craters left in their life by trauma,” he says.

While the book deals with a harrowing topic, the tragedy lies in the past, and Carpenter focuses on exploring the psychology the history of grief confers. This averted gaze, along with Carpenter’s graceful prose, makes it eminently readable.

It’s not a story about a murder but, rather, a story about a man taking the steps he needs to in order to continue on. (However, the fact remains that at the center of this story is a missing child. Carpenter has pledged to donate the bulk of his royalties to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.)

“We don’t experience the event directly. Instead, we see its effect, which is Philip Adler himself, who, after 15 years, has not been able to turn the page. There are some deeply emotional passages, but sometimes those emotions are heartwarming. Anyone who has ever experienced a loss of any sort will identify with Philip Adler and will root for his success,” says Carpenter.