Gormly’s enjoyable debut novel explores the political, religious and social dynamics of rural life in fictional Tysen, Mo., during the summer of 1950.
Naomi Hollister’s husband, Russell, disappeared 12 years ago, leaving her a $1,000 check, his orphaned, 5-year-old nephew, Johnny, and the large house he grew up in. To survive and provide for Johnny, Naomi opened a small hotel, which gave her the ability to send Johnny to Missouri University in the fall. It also introduced her to Matt Neyerson, a sturdy and dependable boarder who knows “when to put down the newspaper.” Busby Howard, the local reverend, spews “hellfire and sparks” from the pulpit of the Baptist church, denouncing Johnny and Naomi for their association with Ray Redeem, a misunderstood troublemaker with plans to marry Alice Tolney, despite the previous arrangements Alice’s father made with wealthy Sample Forney. Howard’s proclamations spark a divide within the church and, ultimately, the entire town. Re-enter Russell, once “all splash and dance,” now sick with cancer and guilt, ready to share the truth about his desertion. Gormly’s multilayered narrative avoids melodrama and flows with ease, using the sights and sounds of an unfolding summer to allow the action to bloom. Precise period details and colloquialisms evoke an era of multiparty telephone lines, railroad travel and pie auctions. The omniscient narrator effectively portrays the interactions of Tysen’s citizens, such as Doobie Prat, who’d “never been a mean drunk, just a persistent one,” “railroad mistress” Bertie Reardon and Matilda and Albert St. John, the town eccentrics, who show up for Saturday night movies in the school gym wearing formal attire. With an easy touch, Gormly sheds light on their divided souls—whether they be “sprinklers” or “fish eaters,” in preacher Busby’s parlance for Methodists and Roman Catholics—and shows how redemption and acceptance can triumph over righteousness and ignorance.
A fresh take on forbidden love and forgiveness with warm, winning characters.