Murder in New Sweden
On Sunday, April 27, 2003, sixteen members of the Gustaf Adolph Evangelical Lutheran Church in the town of New Sweden, Maine (population 620), became ill after a church breakfast following the service. By Monday evening, it was determined that their sickness, and the subsequent death of one of them, was caused by arsenic poisoning, and, further, that the arsenic had been deliberately put into the church's coffee pot by person or persons unknown. A criminal investigation began, but within days, a member of the congregation, Daniel Bondeson, shot himself to death in his farmhouse, leaving a note in which he confessed to the crime. Given these facts, it would seem logical that the New Sweden poisoning case would have been declared closed.
But the congregation of Gustaf Adolph had quite a different narrative of events, and they were not alone. As recently as April of this year, in an article in the Lewiston Sun Journal, Stephen McCausland, of the Maine Department of Public Safety, was quoted as asserting that the detectives on the Bondeson case had always contended that, "Daniel Bondeson did not act alone. That has not changed in the last two years."
The doubts around the guilt of Daniel Bondeson, and the emotions that fuel them, are the subject of a new book, A Bitter Brew: Faith, Power, and Poison in a Small New England Town (Berkley Books, New York, New York; hardcover; 256 pages; $19.95) by television reporter Christine Ellen Young, and in better hands, it could make a fascinating story. Unfortunately, A Bitter Brew suffers from so many flaws that it fails to illuminate, or even to provide a good read.
Young is not terribly interested in exploring the great trinity of all crime investigations: means, motive, and opportunity, either in respect to Daniel Bondeson or the town's preferred suspect, his sister, Norma. Instead, she uses her informants to expose the people of New Sweden as delusional, hostile, and paranoid, assuming that, once her readers know this, they will all agree with her that their suspicions must be unfounded, that Daniel Bondeson was the only poisoner, that he acted alone, and that the community's suspicion that Norma Bondeson was his accomplice is the result of internecine hatreds, jealousies, and paranoid delusions. Her main interest seems to be to explore how a group of good Christians conduct a witch hunt, the methods they use, their general pathology, and how a completely unprofessional, almost cartoonishly stupid police force can be complicit in aiding and abetting them as they go about their work. She may be right, but her book is so badly constructed, so badly written, and so lacking in insight, that it is not terribly convincing.
Young makes the mistake of trying to write an exciting, intriguing, fast-paced book about a criminal investigation when there was no criminal investigation, or, at least, none that she was privy to. She attempts to imagine what's passing through the minds of the residents of New Sweden and the police detectives when she can't imagine what's in their minds. She wants to build up suspense when there is no suspense. Her "you-are-there" technique (you are there, following these folks around, listening in on their conversations, thinking their thoughts) only shows a reader that, as Gertrude Stein would say, "there's no there there."
Instead, readers are offered pages and pages of this sort of riveting dialogue: " 'Aunt Penny, there's no way we're going to lift this man,' " Erica said.
" 'Pull him up to the ambulance bay, and I'll get them to open the doors.' Erica went inside and spotted some familiar hospital workers. 'Carolyn,' she yelled, 'can you open the door?'
" 'We'll get it right open,' Carolyn said, hurrying over, as Erica spotted someone else she knew.
" 'Rob,' Erica hollered, 'he's coming in the side door!'
"Rob ran out to Penny's car. 'I need help to get him on a stretcher!' he yelled." After five or six pages of this, a reader might well feel incapable of dealing with any more excitement.
A writer with more skill and more genuine interest in human beings might have written a truly engaging and fascinating book about the Gustaf Adolph congregation. There are hints that some of these people might be worthy of a writer's attention, but Young doesn't bother giving readers even so much as a cursory physical description of them. Norma Bondeson, for example, the subject of the community's witch hunt, is not described at all, and she evidently refused to be interviewed for this book so she is always seen through the lens of people who hate her ("Just nasty is what she is - just nasty") or people who don't ("Norma was real nice"). Daniel Bondeson, the confessed poisoner, killed himself before anyone from away noticed his existence, but Young certainly could have described him for her readers, given us his age (fifty-three, but readers must make this calculation on their own), and tried to offer some analysis of why this man may have committed this act. Young notes how odd it is that, despite his suicide and note confessing to the crime, his neighbors continued to insist he was a good, gentle, kind man, a little stupid, perhaps, a little socially inept, but that "he would never hurt anybody," but she does not analyze this phenomenon, though it would seem to be the entire point of her book. Instead, she seems to think people's reactions speak for themselves.
" 'I'm not scared of her (Norma), but there are a lot of people who are,' Herman said. " 'We know she's friggin' involved in this, but we don't know exactly what she did. We're doing our best to get rid of her . . . Here's a woman who's never been married . . . ' " A reader can only gulp, but Young makes nothing of this last remark whatsoever. And therein lies the real problem with A Bitter Brew. There is no shaping narrative, there is no story, there are just pages upon pages of gossip and hearsay. Nor are there any fully developed characters, just voices adding their various two-cents worth of stupidity, which the author dutifully records. That's bad enough, but when Young makes up dialogue - for example, between the various police officers - it is embarrassingly awful, and these men become cartoonish caricatures. A book on a crime investigation when there is no real mystery involved doesn't have to be disappointing if the writer has something else to offer: insights into human character, analysis of injustice, attention to detail and sensitivity in evoking a place or a culture, elegance of language, a distinctive personal voice, a style, a sense of humor. Young gives her readers none of this.
Worse, even her obvious intentions in this book are obscured by the form she chooses, an impersonal style in which her presence as a reporter is masked. Absent as a character in her own story, she cannot comment on it directly, and on the rare occasions when she does offer an opinion of her own, she sinks to the same level as her informants. Her attack on a caption under a photograph that appeared in an article in this magazine, for example, ("New Sweden a Year After the Horror," June 2004) is a bit excessive. The offending sentence is: "Though no one has been indicted, everyone in town knows who was behind the crime." Young writes: "This outrageous caption is a textbook case of sloppy journalism and an excellent illustration of how the suspicion, innuendo, and rumors surrounding Norma Bondeson came to be accepted as proof of her involvement in a ghastly crime . . . (T)he accompanying article advances that presumption while offering no evidence to support it." And yet Norma Bondeson's name was not mentioned once in the article, and no less an official source than the Maine State Police was used to establish that the police themselves "knew that the suicide victim, Bondeson, had an accomplice." This, too, may be "suspicion, innuendo, and rumor," but it's certainly worth mentioning.
The real questions the New Sweden poisoning pose are ones Young does not address. What does it mean that a community will not accept the obvious? That they collectively agree that a confessed murderer was too stupid to put arsenic in a coffee pot? That they deny the possibility that a seemingly good man can do something so bad? That they turn en masse against a strong-willed, unmarried woman? That, as they persecute her, they continue to think of themselves as good Christians? In the hands of a writer of some skill, these questions could form the basis of a genuinely enlightening book. A Bitter Brew, however, is not that book.
Agnes Bushell is a novelist from Portland.