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Unraveling A Father's Secrets And 'Sorrows'

Siri Hustvedt's new novel, The Sorrows of an American, begins one winter day when two adult children — both New Yorkers — uncover a mysterious letter among their late father's papers:

"Dear Lars," the letter begins, "I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened. We swore it on the BIBLE. It can't matter now she's in heaven or to the ones here on earth. I believe in your promise. Lisa."

From there, the novel winds back in time, between Minnesota and New York — two worlds that the author, a native Minnesotan now living in Brooklyn, knows well.

It's not just the landscape that is familiar territory for Hustvedt; she calls her own father, a descendant of Norwegian immigrants, a "model" for Lars, the father in the book. In fact, portions of the novel draw on Hustvedt's father's unpublished memoir, which recounts life in a tiny, uninsulated house on the Minnesota prairie, where "the water in the tea kettle was often frozen by morning."

Hustvedt notes that reading her father's memoir was a reminder of the hardship people on the prairie faced well into the 20th century. It's this sense of struggle and perseverance that she wanted to capture in her new book.

"[America] is a large and strange country," Hustvedt says. "I wanted to bring into this book that richness."

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Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.