In Leigh’s debut novel, a young man battles harsh conditions, a sadistic father, and the evils of slavery in a historical saga of Missouri settlers in the early 19th century.
At 15, Thornton Guthrie farms the family’s 80 acres while in constant fear of his father, Marcus, and his omnipresent Hawken rifle. Both have hair triggers that Thornton discovered at age 7 when Marcus shot off part of his ear for resting a moment too long at milking. Thornton’s mother, Rose, also lives in fear of Marcus, who violently abuses her inside and outside the bedroom. When Marcus purchases three slaves from a neighbor, Thornton’s revulsion toward his father intensifies while he begins to formulate scenarios in which he, the three enslaved men, and his mother overpower the tyrant and begin new lives. Slowly gaining the trust of William, the men’s leader, the boy formulates a desperate, reckless undertaking. Complications arise, including romances and births, and the number of potential insurgents swells. The possibility exists for a full-fledged slave escape in collusion with Thornton and other anti-slavery settlers. Although the setting is agrarian, the dynamic interactions with guns and horses have a distinctly Wild West flavor. The characters, while colorful, are not subtly rendered. Marcus is a monster; the three slaves all have almost mystical powers; and Thornton is unceasingly heroic. The evils of slavery are simplistically and repeatedly related: “One time I asked Pa why the men were shackled. He said it was the way it was supposed to be. They weren’t like white men….He said they couldn’t think much better than monkeys.” Characters change long-held opinions abruptly and the book’s shocking “epilogue” skips crucial plot points. But what the writing lacks in nuance, it makes up for in a palpable atmosphere and some seat-gripping suspense scenes.
Energetic and spirited storytelling make this pulpy tale an entertaining read.