This Never Happened – E. W. Summers, 1998

Word around here is that this is based on a true story. It’s the kind of book people ask for without knowing the author or the title, and as librarians we can only find it through word of mouth, because there is no concrete distinguishing characteristic that would tell anyone there’s a local connection. So after finding it once, forgetting it, then needing to find it again two years later, I figured I should read it myself & see what all the fuss is about.

As a novel, it’s not great but not terrible either—routine psychological suspense, where there’s a sordid family secret that’s revealed bit by bit. As the narrator struggles to remember/reconstruct what happened, you’re driven to keep reading to find out what exactly it was–but to me that feels like fake suspense, because you know it’s going to be something horrible even if you’re not sure exactly what the details will be (the genre is not my cup of tea, personally). The reconstruction comes in chunks as Richard, the narrator, interacts with his sister who’s killed her husband (because in a breakdown she thought he was her dad), the sister’s lawyer, other siblings, and a love interest. It’s well-paced and decently-written, although the dialogue is a little stilted and the procedural parts don’t ring particularly true (the lawyer is a heck of a lot more like a psychologist).

Knowing that it’s supposedly based on real events makes it worse in two ways. First, of course, it’s tragic and upsetting (whether or not the event actually happened—it feels like “recovered memory”). Secondly, I have mixed feelings about the roman-a-clef aspect (which of course is what prompted me to read the book in the first place).

If you know a fictional book has a real-life basis, naturally you’re constantly looking for the details that match up to real places/people/things. Summers’ veneer of disguise is ridiculous: “Pallstead” for Hallstead, “Cranklin Hill” for Franklin Hill. Other match-ups are a little looser: the childhood farm is supposedly in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Maryland, whereas we’re in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania (but the location of the real farm is in the Blue Ridge school district); “Blueberry,” the county seat, must be Montrose (Susquehanna County seat) because of the library’s Blueberry Festival (since I often wear the Newberry the Blueberry costume and am in charge of publicity for the Festival, that gave me a particular thrill!); Waterton is presumably Binghamton. There’s a real Steam Hollow Road, so maybe she didn’t even bother to disguise that. And she refers to the farm’s tiger lilies—they could be clever stand-ins for the daylilies that grow everywhere, but are more likely just wrongly identified.

It’s enjoyable to look for what can be identified, but ultimately I think it distracts from the narrative. Of course, since most people who read this book have no connection to the area, this isn’t a relevant criticism for most potential readers!

4 thoughts on “This Never Happened – E. W. Summers, 1998

  1. I just happened on this book and saw all the town names one letter off …even Upsomville… whoo eeeee
    Upsonville was on a corner just up from Steam Hollow Road. There is a Dr. that lived here, Steam Hollow Road area, has a farm and lived in Binghamton , with similar sick history. Gynecologist. His daughter was instituionalized also because of sex abuse and wrote a book about it .
    Like Newberry of Blueberry :) I live in the area and found the local play on names similarities very very interesting.

  2. I find the librarian’s and anonymous’s comments/reviews interesting. I AM indeed, the character Max in the book. Ms. Summers and I thought the faintly disguised names were actually kind of funny and they were intentonal on some level.

    When first published, there was quite an uproar in the Binhamton/Montose area–mostly by the people portrayed as the parents. Sometimes fiction can be just a little too true. Why else the uproar?

    As a survivor of unspeakable terror, sexual abuse, physical abuse to the point of being hospitalized twice, I know from where Ms. Summers writes. The “good and kindly”, doctor on which the monster doctor is based was once referred to by a family member as, “The Dr. Menegle of Binhamton.” Yes, we suffered at his hands but it NEVER stopped the author or me from becoming successful citizens respected in our communities. And, unlike the “good and kindly” doctor, we don’t have to hide behind the in-laws or senior family members because of their fame and fortune, (which was inherited by the way and NOT earned), that still continues today.

    Now, how about making it into a movie so we can watch the real squirming start!

    “Max”

  3. ive been sitting here for almost two hours rewriting my response over and over to this, which now seems like a waste of time- just like the book. as the authors nephew, i would like her to know how much this book has emotional hurt me. I live in "PALLSTEAD" (thanks for that aunt elly) and since this peice of shit came out, ive had to deal with it more than anyone becuase everyone in PALLSTEAD knew and respected my grandfather, so of course they know who the people are in the book and beleive the stories my aunt wrote. The only reason im writing this is because today i recieved a call from a "friend" in PALLSTEAD informing me on how "nuts" my family is, this being about the 20th time ive heard this from people in my town.

    wether the moderator is in cahoots with my aunt or not, this post probably wont be apporved, with that said, the title of the book remains true, THIS DIDNT HAPPEN

    -Seth W

  4. Seth, I published your comment but removed the last line for lack of non-offensive content. I don't know your aunt and I would pretty much guarantee she doesn't read this blog, so if you want to communicate your pain to her you should do it directly. Sorry!

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