BLACKBELLY by Heather Sharfeddin
Kirkus Star


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A rough-hewn first novel about Idaho sheep rancher Chas McPherson, an emotionally stunted recluse who can only relate to his animals.

Chas, 41, ekes out a living raising Blackbelly sheep, bred for food rather than wool. His homestead near the hamlet of Sweetwater is falling down. Chas hires Mattie Holden, a nurse from Spokane, to care for his father Franklin, in the final stages of Parkinson’s disease. Chas has long been under the thumb of Franklin, a one-time charismatic preacher, now immobilized and mute, who still holds the household in his sway. When Chas learns that the Teleghanis, Sweetwater’s sole Muslim family, can’t afford a lamb for Eid, he leaves them one under cover of darkness, later refusing to take credit for the gift. The sighting of his truck that night implicates him in the subsequent arson of the Teleghani’s home. Investigating the crime, Sheriff Edelson is perplexed by the suspect’s arrogance but soon realizes that the town on whose margins Chas has long lived has already condemned him without trial. Sweetwater has borne both McPhersons a grudge since a long-ago revival meeting at which Franklin publicly exposed the sins of the congregation, sowing enmities and destroying marriages. Mattie and Chas circle each other warily, first as drinking companions and later as lovers. It gradually emerges that she was once addicted to painkillers and had her nursing license suspended for elder abuse. Meanwhile, Sheriff Edelson hones in on two local storekeepers who protest too much about Chas’s guilt. Comparisons will be made to Kent Haruf, but Sharfeddin’s prose is more raw, her dialogue less supple. Nevertheless, her eye for detail (she’s a Blackbelly rancher herself) and her unsentimental compassion for her characters and their stunted lives will entrance readers.

Stark terrain beautifully rendered.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 1-882593-97-9
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Bridge Works
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2005