Jess Booker is unhappy when her father remarries after her mother’s death and she ends up with a stepbrother, Adam Finney, who “had never been quite right.”
But we soon learn that her discomfort with Adam's mental disability gives way to a grudging affection and a growing desire to protect him, even from her own family members, who are pressured to institutionalize him. In the prologue, Jess and her father are in a lawyer’s office, and she’s trying to gather her thoughts to tell them about Adam’s last day alive and her own subsequent disappearance. The rest of the novel describes what happened before and after Adam’s death. Cox (The Slow Moon, 2006, etc.) sets her story in a small North Carolina town during the Korean War, and the historical details enhance the book. The first half is a slow read, but Cox lets the tension build while Jess is on the run. Her destination, a boardinghouse in Lula, Alabama, where her mother’s childhood friend Will lives, provides a lively diversion from Adam’s tragic story. Cox provides a searing look at the painful, dehumanizing treatments forced on people with mental disabilities at the time and the limited support their families had—Adam isn't even allowed to go to school after the first grade. His humanity comes through in Cox’s sensitive portrayal, as does the emotional toll his disability takes on his parents and Jess.
Cox resists the easy ending and fills her novel with emotional and moral conundrums.