AN UNFINISHED LIFE, by Mark Spragg, Knopf, 257 pages, $23.

Jean Gilkyson lives with her 10-year-old daughter, Griff, in a trailer house in Iowa with her brutal boyfriend, Roy. After receiving one too many beatings, Jean allows Griff to persuade her to leave Roy for good. But the only place she can run is to her fictional hometown of Ishawooa in Wyoming, where her 70-ish father-in-law, Einar Gilkyson, lives.

Since Einar has always blamed her for the auto accident that killed his son, Griffin, their reunion is far from sweet. Jean assures him she won't be there long and quickly secures a job at a restaurant in town. In the meantime, Griff wastes no time endearing herself to both her grandfather and his best friend, Mitch, whose health and mobility were seriously affected by a confrontation with a bear. It is Einar who takes care of him.

Mitch takes to Griff immediately and they become good friends, but Einar remains distant as long as he can. He puts up with his granddaughter initially while immersing himself in his own anger at Jean. But there is a lot of hope here, because Jean earns her right to stay, the inquisitive and charismatic Griff becomes a wonderful helper around the house and the ranch, and Einar's anger slowly recedes. The author succeeds in portraying characters who, while suffering from economic deprivation, old age and old grudges, are basically good and likable.

When Griff hears Einar in the kitchen she starts down the stairs. She's careful not to trip, but wants to make enough noise that he'll know she's coming. She thinks she's probably surprised him enough already. Each step's only a log cut in half lengthwise. The whole house is made of logs. She thinks it's like being inside a forest that's fallen down and been stacked up on its sides. It's not only a lot better than a trailer house, it's better than any place she's ever seen. It's a real house, the kind that isn't going to wear out before the people who live in it do.

Comment on this story

The unmistakable theme, developed in beautiful, spare prose, is forgiveness. It becomes more and more evident that Einar must forgive Jean — for an accident that was not in fact her fault, and for living the nomadic life of an outcast. The characters become more and more likable as the story progresses, and they talk to each other with honesty and gentle humor. When Roy, the abusive ex-boyfriend, is on the scene, there is some swearing — but it is not characteristic of the novel. Spragg needs to demonstrate that Roy is the only character who seems to have no redeeming qualities.

The overwhelming message is the necessity for people to love and serve each other, to take in those less fortunate — and to forgive past sins or perceived slights. Each character is complicated but consistently interesting — extremely well-developed by Spragg as he insinuates this beautiful story into the reader's consciousness. There is no preaching here — just gifted storytelling.

Spragg is likely to be an author who is prolifically read by a devoted audience and studied in college literature classes for years to come.