A North Carolina girl is the unlikely survivor of a host of tribulations between the Civil War and World War I.
Mary Bet, the no-nonsense hero of the second historical novel by Thompson (The Reservoir, 2011), is the youngest of nine children raised by a rural store owner and his wife. If that seems like a lot of characters for a novelist to juggle, Thompson dispatches them with chilling efficiency: pneumonia, accidents and other misfortunes kill off the clan one by one, until by the turn of the century, the only Hartsoes remaining are Mary Bet and her father, R.C., who soon lands in an asylum. So this is Mary Bet’s story alone, but she’s stalked by a lifelong feeling she’s been cursed, from her fear of the devil as a girl to the boy who got away as an adolescent to her adult sense that she wasn’t told everything about the death of her favorite brother. The early chapters of this book are somewhat plodding, as Thompson introduces family members only to eradicate most of them, with digressions into moonshining, religion and quixotic research into perpetual motion. But once the story is firmly Mary Bet’s, it picks up speed, grace and a touch of dark humor. When the town sheriff enlists during WWI, she’s quickly promoted to the county’s first female sheriff (albeit a temporary one), and it’s clear that the ghosts of all those family members have toughened her up enough to face bootleggers and thieves. The changing South looms over the narrative, as the economy shifts from agrarian to industrial and racism warps the civic character. But Thompson has taken pains not to let history intrude too much: This is a more intimate narrative, a study of one woman’s reward for stubborn persistence.
Though slow to start, an appealing historical novel that blends gothic and plainly romantic themes.