A Detroit boy is sent to stay with his grandparents in rural 1950s Appalachia in this debut literary novel with touches of magical realism.
Nine-year-old Orbie Ray is “a handful” according to his stepfather, Victor. That’s why he has to stay with his grandparents in Kentucky while the rest of the family drives down to Florida, where Victor has a job opportunity. Everything in Harlan’s Crossroads is so different from Detroit—not just the bluegrass and tobacco farms, but also the race relations. Orbie grew up believing that “colored” kids jumped you in the schoolyard and that a black man caused the accident that killed his father. However, in Kentucky, he notices that white folks are often scarier—such as Old Man Harlan, who charges too much at his store, or Bird Pruitt, Harlan’s disturbing hunchback cousin. He also meets Moses Mashbone, a half Choctaw, half black snake handler and medicine man who saved Granpaw’s life; as a result, Granny won’t allow Orbie to say the N-word. Orbie can’t find anyone to play with, so he overcomes his fears and makes friends with Willis, a “little colored boy Moses takes care of.” Willis has a stutter and clubfoot, but he also sings and draws pictures. The story of how Victor courted Orbie’s mother unfolds in flashback, alternating with scenes of Orbie’s story, as he finds himself confronting powerful forces—race, family, nature and even something supernatural. In his debut novel, Owens captures his characters’ folksy Appalachian diction without overdoing it and subtly reveals character through dialogue and description. He also renders a child’s viewpoint with great psychological sensitivity: “I didn’t like the way [Victor] was all the time trying to be on my mind. It was too close together somehow—like when Momma started talking about Jesus and wouldn’t shut up.” Moses and Willis are sometimes overly idealized, and readers may wish that the novel better explored the downsides of snake-handling churches. Overall, however, readers will find this an impressive debut.
A psychologically astute, skillful, engrossing and satisfying novel.