A small-town Midwestern community suffers and seeks salvation in Peet’s debut novel.
The story opens in Jackass Flats, a dead-end section of Hawthorn, Missouri. The neighborhood has a checkered past; not long after its founding, the pastor’s wife was found shot between the eyes, and Pastor Stephen Shrine was hanged by members of the Ku Klux Klan. For generations, the residents bore the weight of this brutal legacy. Currently, the Haights are the only African-American family in Jackass Flats. The racial tension is palpable, and 9-year-old Terrence Haight has already developed an “internal strength” and an “involuntary hardness.” As he grows older, he develops a love of music, and after leaving the Army, he attends college in the hope of becoming a music teacher. His hopes are realized in Hawthorn only to be suddenly dashed when he’s accused of having an affair with a white student. Meanwhile, Father Redmond, the current pastor of Hawthorn Baptist Church, positions himself as the one man who can hold the community together—but he seems far closer to the devil than to the God he purports to serve. The novel follows the lives of a range of other disparate characters, including Eric, the pastor’s son—a young boy with a grudge and a psychotic streak—and Daniel, the son of Terrence’s former student, who seems cast adrift in a tempestuous world. Peet gives readers the uncanny sense that they’re looking down on a strange, ungodly place: “Hawthorn and Dogwood trees gave it a lovely appearance from Heaven, but perhaps not from the ground, where you could see it up close.” One can draw parallels between this book’s dark opening and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945), as both capture a world inside a vacuum. As with Steinbeck, readers will become deeply engaged in the characters’ clumsy navigations through life, hoping that redemption or reparation will follow. Peet is a skilled writer who offers succinct and unique turns of phrase: “The wrinkles of Jim Crow hadn’t yet been fully ironed out in that part of the country.” Overall, he delivers a masterful debut that moves provocatively between a nightmare and grim reality.
A darkly enthralling tale that highlights Peet as a writer to watch.