Verisimilitude: Truth in Art and in Rosalie Knecht's Relief Map

Sarah-Jane Abate

Rosalie Knecht’s Relief Map is a classic coming-of-age novel set in Lomath, Pennsylvania during a slow, boring summer. Much like any summer in small-town America, until police and FBI barricade the town: they’re looking for an international fugitive, and they’ve tracked him to Lomath. Over the next few days, the isolated town begins to fall apart, complete with hysteria, mobs, and unexpected outbursts of violence. The novel is told mainly from Livy’s point of view, a sixteen year-old girl who knows Lomath well enough to navigate it in the dark.  Livy and her friends—best friend Nelson and bad boy acquaintances Dominic and Brian—team up and are faced with monumental choices. Throughout, Livy narrates with care and compassion, as well as some adolescent “tude.”

The novel makes space, however, for the fugitive Revaz’s point of view. Revaz provides a necessary outside look at this sequestered town, giving the reader perspective on Lomath and on the characters he meets. Livy’s point of view, however, is the shining star of the novel, as it is a complete portrayal of character and what it means to be a sixteen year old girl. As the novel starts, the raising of the barricades excites Livy: “She was aware that she was enjoying it a little, the way she enjoyed thunderstorms.” We watch Livy grow throughout the novel, coming to insights that surprise her—and us—with their depth of maturity. We root for Livy when we read, “The world hung together on a threat of deception, and any deception she could think of seemed equally, mercifully petty.” And we like Livy and respect her. 

Beyond Livy and Knecht’s use of point of view, verisimilitude is Relief Map’s chief strength. Every sentence, action, and conversation among Knecht’s characters is completely believable, something you could image happening in front of your eyes in familiar settings like your corner store, your downtown.  The dynamics between Livy and her parents, her friend Nelson, and the townspeople, are similarly strong, each encounter pulling back more layers of each person. Knecht’s dialogue keeps a quick pace; each back-and-forth exchange and joke is easy to follow and entertaining.  Visceral details, like the police-women with “knuckly hands” and the corner store sodas warm and sticky from days without power, fill the novel. In the landscape around Lomath, Livy notes how the “water cut deep into the soft earth” and the neighbor’s pastures are as “smooth as cream.” Lomath is alive.

The town of Lomath is another stellar character in Relief Map. As the woman who minds the corner store says, “You can see most of [the town] from where you’re standing, you don’t need a map.”  Knecht outlines the emotional and physical boundaries of Lomath better than any map could. Through Livy, we know the corner-store with its three gossipy women; we know the paths through the woods and the creeks leading to outside—and to home. We see Ron Cash, the gun-shooting, trouble-causing loudmouth neighbor and Jerry, the old man who calls his massive dog by saying, “Come here, Chief, you piece of shit.”

Knecht uses Relief Map to trace the complexities of Lomath, examining the secrets and depths of the town and the people who live there. Through the use of tense, taut scenes, Knecht draws Lomath as it is forced to confront several trials. Each character’s decisions and mistakes conflate to ratchet up the tension in a completely believable way, leading the novel to its inevitable, surprising end. Relief Map takes us on an unforgettable – and real – journey through Lomath and through the lives of Livy, Nelson, and all the other town inhabitants.