The Flicker of Old Dreams

The Flicker of Old Dreams is about the death of small town America as told by a mortician.

Mary Crampton, a 30-year-old embalmer, has been an outsider her whole life. From the time she was a child performing funerals for her dolls on the front lawn in her small prairie town, Mary has grown to prefer the company of the dead—relationships where she and the deceased can expose their vulnerabilities without judgment. But that is about to change. When a dishonored and long-absent resident returns to Petroleum to bury his mother, Mary finds herself caught between the town’s deeply held resentments and the dreams she once held.

The Flicker of Old Dreams is a story about the tension between those who fear and those who desire change; the beauty and grit of a town in its last gasp for life; the universal cry for dignity; and the revived hearts of a pair of outsiders who decide to break from tradition and dream bigger lives.

Readers have compared The Flicker of Old Dreams to Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.


2019 Western Writers of America Spur Award Winner for Best Contemporary Western Novel

2019 WILLA Literary Award Winner in Contemporary Fiction

2019 High Plains Book Award Winner for Fiction

2019 High Plains Book Award Winner for Woman Writer

2019 Montana Book Award Honor Book


Praise for The Flicker of Old Dreams:

Achingly magnificent. …The Flicker of Old Dreams is a real, honest achievement in modern fictionThe London Economic 

The Flicker of Old Dreams is at once a vivid and wildly compelling study of small town American life and an intimate and incisive exploration of the human condition, from love to loss and beyond. If Shirley Jackson and Kent Haruf had a love child, she might write like Susan Henderson. —Jonathan Evison, New York Times bestselling author of West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving  

Just exquisite. —Kirk Ellis, Emmy Award-winning writer and producer of the HBO miniseries, John Adams, and the DreamWorks miniseries, Into the West 

Nonfiction books such as J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy attempt to answer such questions directly, while other works of art, such as Susan Henderson’s second novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams, attempt to get inside such a world without the loaded controversy of contemporary politics. She takes the town and its residents on their own terms but leaves the reader with lingering questions that burn. Los Angeles Review of Books

This one made me cry. It’s a beautifully written novel about a female mortician in a dying Montana town. It’s more of a glimpse into the lives of an overlooked swath of America and less about death, and without giving too much away, I’ll say that if Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley held hands with Mary Roach and Caitlin Doughty…this is what it would look like. Wonderfully odd, lyrically written and fair to say that if you aren’t a little different when you finish reading it, we may not be friends. Wonderlust Travel

Susan Henderson offers us the wondrously sharp picture of small town Petroleum, Montana, where the past comes back on two feet and a blizzard rages. The Flicker of Old Dreams is a fine novel, heartfelt and bracing company. It is a gemRon Carlson, Pushcart Prize and O. Henry award-winning author of At the Jim Bridger and Ron Carlson Writes a Story

The Flicker of Old Dreams glimmers with haunting honesty. [It] is compelling and poignantly tells the life-long human struggle to belong and to be understood. The Billings Gazette 

This novel is so breathtakingly good, so exquisitely written. About a female mortician, about a childhood tragedy that still haunts a damaged young man, about the endless landscape and about those tiny sparks of possibility. Oh my God. Trust me. This book. This book. This Book. —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World

Henderson is a master stylist whose sentences are cut with razor-sharp precision, and what she is crafting here is an old-fashioned literary novel of longing versus obligations in the mold of writers such as Edith Wharton. She builds a world driven by character, by place, by the why more than by the what. She is also unafraid to put death center stage, exploring both its permanence (Mary’s mother died giving birth to her) and the private rebellions with which people attempt to outwit it. —Gina Frangello, Los Angeles Review of Books 

If I were still a frontline bookseller I would be handselling the hell out of Susan Henderson’s new novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams… one of my favorite books this year. Robert Gray, Shelf Awareness 

Like the wind scours paint from an old grain silo, Susan Henderson’s writing scours away all the pretend niceness of small town life in Montana to reveal the frayed and patched nature of humanity.  Nobility, ragged resilience and hope compete with small-minded ignorance in a story of unlikely friendship that is sharply detailed and so beautifully written. —Helen Simonson, New York Times bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before the War 

Susan Henderson’s The Flicker of Old Dreams is a clear-eyed, wise, and poignant tale of losses and gains, told with tremendous empathy and grace. —Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald 

A lyrical meditation on life lived outside the city; this powerful novel of resilience, redemption and human imperfection will leave you breathless. I simply loved this novel. —Staff Pick, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Michigan 

A truly magnificent work of art. The soul energy that is pushing through this story is unstoppable, beautiful, vulnerable, powerful. It reads like a song, an elegy to the dead and dying and death itself with such a freshness of discovery as if all this death and dying were actually some deep part of living. Her microscopic and telescopic eyes see it all and give the reader an insight to humanity from almost every angle. Her sense of place is as good as the greatest of writers. —Jessica Keener, author of Night Swim and Strangers in Budapest

Henderson has Anne Tyler’s gentle touch with character. She is genuinely fond of these imperfect humans, and readers will leave them reluctantly. She also has Gretel Erhlich’s sense of place and observational technique. Petroleum is a small town brought into shimmering reality by the alchemy of the author’s telling details and memorable denizens. “We all have to make an extra effort during these tough times,” Mary says, “adding a little water to the milk, a little vegetable oil to the gasoline. Everyone gets by as they can.” Henderson gives the grit and the gentleness in equal measure, and her story is stronger for it. And, she has Eudora Welty’s gift of crafting simple, informative, yet elegant sentences. —Corey Mesler, The Memphis Flyer

Every once in a while, a novel comes along that is so exquisitely written, so lovingly created, you wonder how you’ll ever enjoy another book. Susan Henderson’s The Flicker of Old Dreams is just such a gem. Her prose is pitch perfect and with every snippet of dialogue her love for her characters becomes more apparent. The tiny western town of Petroleum in Central Montana is, perhaps, the richest character in the book. If you love literature at its finest, read this book. —Tish Cohen, author of Town House

Ms. Henderson, one of the most compelling and daring writers of our time, explores the meaning of heart and home in ways that open doors not shut them. —Saralee Rosenberg, author of  Dear Neighbor, Drop Dead

Susan Henderson has secured her position as one of my favorite novelists. You won’t be able to turn away from this tender, elegiac and haunting novel that beautifully exposes the human heart, the human body, and the human condition. Jessica Anya Blau, nationally bestselling author of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and the critically acclaimed The Trouble with Lexie 

I’m absolutely floored and completely in love with this book! It’s astounding. I’m breathless. —Ellen Meister, author of Dorothy Parker Drank Here and Farewell, Dorothy Parker

God, this woman, the way she writes! —Virginia Stanley, Director of Library Marketing, Under the Radar, Over the Moon

This book. This author. This writing. I am struggling to find adequate praise—I did not want this to end. —Ron Block, host of  A Cook and a Book 

A marvelous book – I started reading more slowly to make it last. Honest and unflinching about relationships, death, and the power of story within communities, this novel reminded me of the depth of John Irving’s “Cider House Rules,” and the emotional clarity of Doris Lessing. I found it completely enjoyable. —Eudora Watson 

Great sentences expounding on the complexities and fragilities of the human heart, one that echoes John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner. —Lou Pendergrast

Might be the best book you read this year, or any year. What an incredible piece of writing. This is a finely crafted, stylistic dream of a novel about a small town, slowly dying, and the undertaker’s daughter, who has never been anything or experienced much. I’ll treasure this book forever and share with friends. Up From the Blue was great, but Flicker is fifty times that book, just unforgettable. —Jo-Ann Mapson, author of  Blue Rodeo 

Susan Henderson’s new novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams, is a stunning achievement, beautifully told, and so full of quirky humanity you’re never quite sure from one moment to the next whether it’s going to make you laugh or cry. —Jim Nichols, author of  Hull Creek 

This is a tender, heartfelt, gem of a book. Every word of it made its way into my heart to stay. This is a very talented author who writes like a poet with a powerful emotional punch. I found this book to be completely breathtaking and I read it in a single day as I couldn’t bear to part with it. So lovely, so haunting, so human. —Marjorie Cunningham, LibraryThing

The Flicker of Old Dreams is an absolute literary delicacy and already is one of my favorite novels of the year. —Dunja Bonacci Skenderovic, BookReporter 

A strong story filled with mood to match the setting and circumstances. An interesting and moving story of seemingly simple but incredibly complex lives in this town. —Judge, WILLA Literary Awards 

Fascinating and unique. Timely and empowering. —Judge, WILLA Literary Awards 

Henderson has created a vivid, yearning, haunted story of a small-town outcast. Fear, loss, and loneliness clash with loyalty, individualism and love in this poignant tale. —Judge, WILLA Literary Awards