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Posts Tagged ‘family feuds’

LET ME DIE IN HIS FOOTSTEPS by Lori Roy: Book Review

In this tale of mid-century Kentucky, there’s a lot going on.  There are family feuds, women with second sight, a girl’s “mother” who isn’t her mother, and a long-gone woman with an aura so evil that town’s citizens crossed the street rather than walk alongside her.

Let Me Die In His Footsteps is told in chapters that are nearly twenty years apart.  The novel opens in 1952 with Annie Holleran on the eve of her ascension, a ritual in her town that takes place on the day a girl becomes fifteen and a half.  The legend is that the girl must go to a well at midnight, and the face she sees in the water is that of the man she will marry.  Annie, despite her public stance that the ritual is nonsense, still plans to sneak out for a glimpse of her intended.

Rather than go to the well that most girls go to, Annie decides she’ll go to the well of her neighbor.  The only problem is that the neighbor is Mrs. Baine, and the Hollerans and the Baines have been feuding for years.  Nevertheless, shortly before midnight Annie leaves her bedroom with her younger sister Carolyn silently following behind her.  And at the well the sisters see a slender arm, lying still on the grass.

Sarah and Juna Crowley are teenagers in 1936.  Their mother has died, and they live in a shanty with their father and younger brother Dale.  It’s Sarah, the “good” sister, who tells this part of the story, and although she loves Juna, she is wary of her.  There is something about Juna, when she looks at you, that can freeze your blood.  And when young Dale disappears, the terror begins.

Written in the genre of a Southern gothic novel, Let Me Die In His Footsteps is spellbinding.  According to Wikipedia, the genre is filled with “deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters,” and this book certainly has those.  There is a sense of pervading menace in this small Kentucky town, mostly because of the events following Dale’s disappearance and the fear with which the citizens regard Juna.

Of course, a valid question is whether Juna is truly gifted with the “know-how,” a sort of second sight, and is intrinsically bad or whether the townspeople’s strange animosity toward her brought out an inclination on her part to do terrible things to repay them.  The answer is part of the novel’s mystery.

It’s not giving anything away to let readers know that Juna is Annie’s biological mother; it’s one of those things that everyone in Hayden County knows but nobody mentions.  People, including those in Annie’s family, recognize that she has the “know-how” that her mother had, and although she has never used it, it’s still a part of her.

As they did with Juna, people avoid looking directly at Annie, fearful of the power she could have over them, should she choose to employ it.  After all, it was her mother who caused Joseph Carl Baine to be hanged publicly, the last man in America to receive that punishment.

The characters in Let Me Die In His Footsteps are beautifully written.  Small-town America in the thirties and fifties comes alive, both its good and bad aspects.  Lori Roy, an Edgar winner for Bent Road, succeeds again in writing a masterful mystery.

You can read more about Lori Roy at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.




HAZARD by Gardiner Harris: Book Review

“…The (coal) seam was no bigger than thirty inches and often narrowed to twenty-six. Miners here spent their working lives in a space no taller than a coffee table…its operators all lay prone.  Miners had to bring straws with their lunches because there was rarely enough room to tilt a Coke can over their heads.”

The cliche life imitates art is unfortunately too true, for this novel’s story closely parallels the tragedy in a West Virginia coal mine earlier this year.

This first novel by Gardiner Harris has the very dysfunctional Murphy family at its center.  They are third generation miners in Perry County, Kentucky.  Will Murphy is the novel’s protagonist, for hero is too positive a word to describe him.  Will’s father and uncle started mining in a small way, and after the oil crisis in the 1970s the demand for coal increased and so did the family fortunes.  Then Will’s father forced Will’s uncle Elliott out, creating a family rift that never healed.

Years ago Will was responsible for causing an explosion in the family mine; as a result his younger brother died, and Will suffered severe burns over much of his body.  Will has never forgiven himself, so partly to make amends he gave up mining and is now an inspector for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.  Just before the book opens Will’s father died, and the reading of his will gives complete control of the Blue Gem mine to Will’s brother Paul.  As the novel begins, there is an explosion in the Blue Gem in which nine miners drown; the investigation has been given to Will.  Is the official thinking that he won’t find fault with his brother’s mine?

Mining is an incestuous business, with miners, mine owners, and mine inspectors all members of the same families.  The miners are dependent on the mine being open and operating, the owners are dependent on the slack enforcement of safety standards by MSHA to ensure high profits, and the inspectors all have relatives who work or own the mines.  It’s not a good recipe for honest inspections and rigid adherence to safety regulations.

Will is very much a flawed man.  He’s tormented by the accident he caused, and everything he has done since then has been impacted by that event.  His relationship with his mother is cool, his relationship with Paul almost non-existent, his relationships with his superiors in MSHA difficult because they want to close the case, his relationship with his wife and teenage daughter problematic because his wife has moved out of their home so their daughter can attend a different high school and have the chance to win a basketball scholarship.

There’s so much going on that several times Will is ready to give up the investigation, but each time something comes up to cause him to try to make sense of why the miners were cutting in an old mine area which shouldn’t have contained water but did.

Harris uses his background as an investigative reporter in coal mining Kentucky to bring to life a community where there’s nothing else but mines, no other way to earn a living.  It’s all most people in the area know, and their lives have been so restricted for generations that it’s almost impossible for them to think about leaving and finding another way of life.  Will Murphy has managed to leave the mine, but the mine hasn’t left him.

You can read more about Gardiner Harris at this web site.