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My parents are from the same small town in South Carolina about 40 miles west of Charleston, and when I was growing up my grandmothers lived catty-corner a block apart. My cousins and I could unlatch Nanny’s back gate and sprint across a small field that belonged to the Coolers (more kin) and end up at Grandmother’s back screen door in about three minutes. It was very convenient, as was the library, the school, the park, the Baptist and Methodist churches, and everything “up the street,” which is what the grandmothers called downtown.

Twenty-five years later, East Washington Street is still one-way, but the dime store, the weekly newspaper office, the jewelers, and all the clothes and shoe stores have either closed or relocated out near the highway. But downtown Walterboro is thriving, with more than a dozen antique stores filling the old brick storefronts between the courthouse and the post office. The town has reinvented itself as “the gateway to the Lowcountry,” and tourists flock to the S.C. Artisans Center in a historic house. The Rice Festival was this past weekend, and a big antiques festival is slated for mid-month.

I couldn’t help but think of Walterboro while reading Timothy Schaffert’s offbeat charmer, The Coffins of Little Hope, which is set in small-town Nebraska. Octagenerian Essie Myles, the obituary writer for the local County Paragraph since age 14, looks with dismay at a  nearby town and birthplace of a once-popular author, where “benefactors were buying up all the properties, restoring them, filling them with antiquities, as if they were carving Pompeii from its ashes.”

Essie’s hometown has its claims to fame as well, thanks largely to the little family newspaper run by her grandson Doc. Its printing plant has been chosen to secretly publish the 11th and final installment in the best-selling series of Miranda-and-Desiree YA novels, which sound like something Edward Gorey might have concocted. Readers across the country eagerly speculate about the last adventures of the two sisters living at Rothgutt’s Asylum for Misguided Girls.

Essie’s obits, which she writes as S Myles, also have a cult following. But readers from all over subscribe to the folksy County Paragraph for news of Lenore, a little girl who has been reported missing by her mother Daisy, supposedly abducted by her sometimes lover, a photographer pilot named Elvis.

It is a fantastic story in every sense of the word because it may or may not be true. But Essie knows that “the legend of Lenore, if carefully composed, would save our town from a quaint decline into barbershop quartets and tax-supported ice cream parlors.”

The Coffins of Little Hope — the title is itself a story — begins with Essie introducing herself and explaining how Daisy summons her to the farmhouse to write an obituary for Lenore long after anyone is waiting for word of her death. She is either hoax or tragedy. But her mystery is part of the town’s mythology, so much so that it even considers changing its name, “we would live live in the town of Lenore.”

Incidentally, I love that Schaffert chose that name, with its echoes of Poe’s poem, as well as “The Raven,” lost Lenore, nevermore, etc. It’s typical of his layered tale’s wit, its realistically quirky characters — I haven’t even mentioned Essie’s teen-aged great-grandaughter, Tiff, who coins the term “Lenoreans,” or Doc’s magic tricks, or the reclusive author Wilton Muscatine, a fan of Essie’s obits.

Essie wonders who will write her obit. “Is it so much to want the last sentence of my obit to be written by someone of genius? I want my obituary to win awards, to be published in textbooks. . .And when the writer of my obituary dies, I want her obituary to mention mine.”

Essie, it’s not her but a him. Meet Timothy Schaffert.

Open Book: I read an advance digital galley of The Coffins of Little Hope (Unbridled Books) through NetGalley. But it’s a keeper, so I bought the e-book for my nook.

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