Beauty and Savagery in the Alleghenies

 
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Like many of you, I read fiction to escape, but I'm not much for formula novels, which tend to bore me quickly. Instead, I love that genre that we refer to in library land as "psychological novels." These are stories that are character driven, letting us inside the heads of the major players, as we seek to know what motivates some people to do terrible things and some people to pursue truth. I also love novels that are deeply atmospheric. I like to be transported to another place or time via descriptive prose, along with thinking about how location might influence the behavior of a novel's characters.

You can, though, have a strong setting and loads of character development, and be bored to death, if the plot is neglected. When an author hits the trifecta of atmosphere, character, and fast-paced plot line, you have a truly great read, particularly in the mystery and suspense genre. 

Julia Keller is on my list of writers to watch. Last year, Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (always a good sign), published A Killing in the Hills, her first novel. Set in the mountains of West Virginia, the prologue opens with a woman named Bell standing at the scene of a devastating fire long past. The frightening screech of an owl warns of the "terrible crime" that took place at the site, and Keller lets us know that the woman has no need to visit this place often, because "the past travelled with her."

Next we are transported to the scene of a bored teenage girl at work in a small-town diner. Her adolescent reflections on the disgustingness of three older men are quickly interrupted when the trio is shot dead at point blank range in between coffee sips. News travels fast in a small town, and Raythune County prosecutor Bell Elkins rushes onto the scene to make sure her daughter Carla, the teenage witness to the murders, is unharmed. 

This isn't the kind of thing that happens in broad daylight in sleepy Acker's Gap, West Virginia. Or is it?  Mining and manufacture, industries long gone, have left the hills not just hopeless, but ripe for further degradation in the form of the illegal prescription drug trade. Thirty-nine-year-old Bell has spent five years witnessing this devastation, but is determined to fight. She suspects this case is drug related.

Keller weaves and twists an intricate tale, including a subplot involving a case in which Bell must decide how to prosecute a locally mentally challenged man who has, perhaps unintentionally, murdered his six-year-old playmate. Bell is intensely private, and as the novel progresses we learn of the painful past (involving that burned-out mountain site mentioned above) that motivates her to pursue justice for the folks of her county. The plot thickens as Carla remembers that she's seen the diner shooter in the past, and decides to work on her own to prove herself to her mother, with disastrous results. We even get inside the head of more than one ruthless killer. If this sounds like a juggling act of plot lines and character development, it is; one that Keller masterfully manages at a breathtaking pace.

A Killing in the Hills is taut, mesmerizing, and filled with the gorgeous eeriness that only a mountain setting can evoke. It is about hope and hopelessness, about the way circumstance impacts who we become, about the beauty and the ugliness that lies at the depths of each of our hearts. It is a murder mystery, but it is much more. Rarely does an author produce a cast of so many characters and make each of them more than just a good or a bad guy. You will mourn for the mountains as you read this novel, yet be moved by the steely determination of its inhabitants.

A second novel featuring Bell is in the works, and It won't be soon enough when I get to visit Acker's Gap again.

 

Cotton, the Klan, Whiskey, and Murder in (You Guessed it) Mississippi

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I heard an interesting story on NPR the other day about Mississippians tiring of their state's movie reputation as the place where anything bad that can happen to black people has, well, happened. The story was about Tarantino's Django Unchained, which I have yet to see. Of course, Mississippi Burning comes to mind right away. Then, so do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Needless to say, Mississippi's historical quirks are front and center in Hollywood.

Mississippi's literary rep is perhaps even worse. While The Help softened things up, making the Delta's sordid history of racism and murder more palatable, there are  authors who've delved into Mississippi's history a bit more bluntly. I'm thinking William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. (Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is still in my top tenish -- there might be twelve or thirteen on the list -- most awesome, must-be-read books ever published, but that's another post.)   

Hillary Jordan, an NYC author by way of Texas, writes about Mississippi with a seriously Faulknerian flavor in her debut 2008 novel, Mudbound, winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. While Jordan's style varies considerably from Faulkner's (no stream of consciousness here), the feeling of the novel is eerily reminiscent of her Delta literary forbears. Mudbound is a novel inextricably tied to its setting, and Jordan ultimately succeeds in drawing her reader into the post-World War II American Deep South. I left the novel with visions of fingers numbed by cotton picking, sleepless hot nights, dusty farmyards, and above all human desperation, floating through my mind.

Besides evoking the setting so adeptly, Jordan's novel is strong in other ways. The story begins at the end with two brothers working against an oncoming storm to dig a hole deep enough to bury their recently-dead father. The reader quickly learns that Pappy's death was unnatural and that one brother seems less than aggrieved by his father's passing. Then the book abruptly switches to an earlier time, and the author has made her hook. The sense that the characters are moving toward a devastating conclusion never wanes, and that makes the book hard to walk away from.

Mudbound is the story of Laura McAllan, a college-educated woman who escapes spinsterhood in Memphis in the early 1940s when she meets and marries Henry. Her city life is forever altered when Henry unexpectedly moves Laura to his Mississippi homeland, settling her and their two young daughters in a shack with no electricity or running water. Laura quickly learns that the difficulties of farm life are not limited to day-to-day survival. She must cope with her overbearing, racist father-in-law, the desperation of sharecropping tenants, and her own loneliness and dissatisfaction. Soon Henry's bright-but-damaged brother Jamie returns from the warfront, as does the son of a black sharecropper who works the McAllan land. The bond that forms between the two veterans is less than acceptable in postwar Mississippi, as is the continued attraction between Jamie and Laura. Told in a chorus of voices, the novel careens toward its tragic end at a breathtaking pace. I read it in three days, which is pretty much unheard of considering my current household obligations. (And that means it was really, really good.)