The line between fact and fiction is not always very bright. A storyteller must draw on personal vision, life experience and actual events to create a work that is itself a new reality. The novel “Dead Center” by Joanna Higgins is a fine example of a writer discovering depths of understanding from characters she has molded, based on an extraordinary real-life situation. The action commences abruptly with a respected pediatrician suddenly taken into custody to be returned to Michigan to stand trial for a killing that took place twenty years before. Dr. Ben Weber was present when his friend Pete Hyland was shot to death at a Michigan hunting camp, and though it was ruled accidental suspicions remained. Following the shooting, Dr. Weber divorced his wife to marry Pete’s widow, Karen, adopt her two young daughters Laura and Lin and then move to Hawaii. The doctor’s fine reputation, the family situation and the passage of time turns the trial into a sensational event in the small town of Tunley, Michigan.
An aggressive prosecuting attorney draws out lies in Dr. Weber’s testimony, and along with new forensic evidence the “cold case” begins to thaw. The staggering fact about “Dead Center” is that most of its incredible details are true and will likely be familiar to people in the Twin Tiers region of Pennsylvania and New York. The plot is drawn in large part from the trial of Dr. Stephen Scher, who in 1976 was present at the shooting death of his friend Martin Dillon. Scher did marry Dillon’s widow and raise her two daughters. He was brought to trial in 1997 and found guilty of first-degree murder, the conviction was overturned in 1999 but he was tried and convicted again 2008 and sentenced to life in prison. He died in prison in 2010. Many of the details of the Scher case turn up in “Dead Center”, including the revelation that the accused was having an affair with the wife of the man who was killed. Joanna Higgins attended the trial in Montrose, PA.
The dimension of the case that would evade spectators, journalists and others is the pain and personal responses of a family whose respectable life was being ruined. This is the heart of “Dead Center”. Laura is living in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Lyn is in Ithaca, NY, not terribly supportive but willing to come to Tunley for the trial. Their mother Karen is a cancer survivor and bearing up worst of all. Dr. Weber seems optimistic, almost cheery through the courtroom drama. Most of the chapters in “Dead Center” are headed by the name of a character or two, as Higgins delves into their thoughts and feelings.
Moods, the weather of the soul, Laura thought later, exhausted but unable to sleep. The beat of a mosquito’s wing, somewhere changing the whole mental atmosphere. In this case, her sister’s words, again, the doubt embedded within, their dull tone, the leaden pessimism and distrust, her weird need not to believe, all easily overtaking her own defenses, the incipient happiness, moving in upon it like a cold drizzle. She kept hearing her dad’s voice, kept trying to visualize exactly how it happened, but it woould blur, images on water.
“Dead Center” is Joanna Higgins’ first published novel since “A Soldier’s Book” in 1998, a well-researched Civil War memoir of a Union prisoner-of-war confined to the notorious Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Ga. The entire book is in the voice of soldier Ira Cahill Stevens, who seeks to avoid despair amidst death and meaningless.
Joanna Higgins lives in Vestal, NY. She taught writing at colleges in England, Hawaii, New York and Michigan and was recpient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her forthcoming work is another historical novel, this one about the French Azilum settlement and intended for young readers. She joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about “Dead Center” and “A Soldier’s Book”.