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Books

An excerpt from Sue Miller’s next novel

Miller writes in longhand.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Miller writes in longhand.

Due out from Knopf in fall 2014.

Here’s what an arsonist on the loose does to a small town. First, everyone is afraid. Of course, that could happen anywhere, but in a small town, the person you’re afraid of is bound to be someone you know, someone you probably see regularly in the store, at church, at the post office. The sense of community that is the bedrock of small-town life is broken, suddenly. People look at one another with suspicion and fear, friend to friend, father to son, wife to husband.

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Everyone is on edge. In our town, the fires have almost always been set at night, so people don’t sleep well, listening for the footstep outside on the porch, the splash of kerosene or gasoline or charcoal starter at the doors or windows. Families take turns. Tonight I get to sleep and you stay awake to watch, tomorrow night you’ll sleep and I’ll stay up. Everyone is exhausted. The men in the volunteer fire department are exhausted too. They’ve risen again and again from their beds and driven across town to try to put out fires that were set with the confounding intention of causing maximum damage.

People have armed themselves. We’re a community with plenty of hunters, so that wasn’t a difficult step, but it was a radical one, getting the guns out before hunting season, having them always loaded and close at hand. It’s resulted in at least one accident, fortunately not fatal. But more important, it’s brought the fear of each other to that extreme a possibility: If he comes here, I will shoot him. Or worse: Let him come here. I want to shoot him.

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