Lori Roy's first novel is a creepy gothic family tale set in rural Kansas
This is Lori Roy's first novel, and it's nominated for an Edgar. It's a very assured storytelling voice for a first timer, with an excellent sense of place, and a complex and creepy story. One of the words I'd choose for this book is "atmospheric," since, sometimes almost unfortunately, as a reader you can picture all too well the tiny Kansas farmhouse where the plagued Scott family lives.
The central family, Celia and Arthur, and their children, Elaine, Daniel and Evie, have come back to rural Kansas after fleeing Detroit in the wake of the 1968 riots. While the year is never specifically referenced, it's made clear by a few details — the memory of the pillbox hats Celia used to wear to church in Detroit for example. And Detroit seems an entire world away from the rural Kansas Arthur has returned his family to, and it's a world the rest of the family frequently misses.
It's apparent when they return that there are many currents under the family surface. There is Arthur's sister, Ruth, who seems unhappy with her husband, Ray; there's a missing sibling, Eve, who no one will talk about; and there's the grandmother, Reesa, who seems a little unreceptive to her daughter-in-law. As Celia thinks to herself, "In Kansas, she doesn't know how to care for her children." The parameters are so different.
Evie, the tiny little blonde fairy child of the family, becomes obsessed with her Aunt Eve, who she thinks has simply moved away. She loves the beautiful dresses that her aunt left behind in her closet and likes to sit in her room at her grandmother's house and look at them. She's so small for her age, none of the other kids will be friends with her. Daniel, who feels his place as the son of the family has been supplanted by his sister's boyfriend, Jonathon, is trying every way he knows how to grow up, but so many things confuse him.
When Aunt Ruth moves in with them after an especially unpleasant confrontation with her husband Ray, the dynamic of the family shifts again. Celia is glad to have the company; Arthur feels protective of her; and Evie feels if only Aunt Ruth wasn't around, somehow the magical Aunt Eve would come back. Ruth's sweet spirit has been sapped by 20 years of abuse, a cycle only broken with the return of her brother's family and the boiling to the surface of the family secrecy surrounding Eve.
Things are accelerated by the disappearance of a tiny blonde neighbor girl, one who looks very much like Evie, and apparently her missing Aunt Eve as well. Somehow in the minds of the town Uncle Ray is responsible for all of these mysteries; in the minds of some of Daniel's new school friends, it's a mysterious black man, escaped from a nearby mental asylum.
The two central scenes of the novel involve violence, but they are spaced far apart, so Roy sustains the suspense with the tension of her storytelling style. Not all the threads end in horror — sometimes the knocking outside in the dark is just a cow, for example — but sometimes, it's not. It's not knowing when it isn't that sustains the tension of the book.
The most memorable scene in the novel concerns the death of a cow; it's heartbreaking, and affects each family member. The final violent scene is also heartbreaking, and affects each family member, but, by that point in the story, the violence is a welcome and needed relief.
My desire to ever go to Kansas has been severely undermined by reading this story, but except for the tumbleweeds, this Midwestern farm landscape could be in Wisconsin or Illinois or Ohio or Michigan. It feels very familiar in one way, and horribly alien in another. This is a book about long buried secrets and what they can do to a family and community; and when an author makes one of the villains a Catholic priest and one of the most memorable victims a cow, there's something original at work.
I'm more than interested to see what Roy's second novel shapes up to be.
Robin Agnew is the co-owner of Aunt Agatha's Bookshop in downtown Ann Arbor. Meet Lori Roy at Aunt Agatha's on March 15.