Another character-rich, atmospheric, thematically complex tale from Humphreys (The Fireman's Fair, 1991, etc.), set in a "piney lower corner of North Carolina" during the Civil War era.
Narrator Rhoda Strong, daughter of a Scots immigrant and a Lumbee Indian, lives in Scuffletown, a multiracial community forged by the Indians. Scuffletown's gentle patriarch is Allen Lowrie, whose son Henry leads a band of men hiding in the swamps to escape forced labor during the hunger-ravaged summer of 1864. Rhoda is 15, longing for the kind of love that sustains her parents in an unjust world subject to the arbitrary incursions of "macks" (whites) like Brant Harris, the drunken head of the Home Guard; and Deputy Rod McTeer, who orders the brutal execution of Allen Lowrie. Rhoda and Henry have just made love for the first time when they witness this execution, and their subsequent marriage is haunted by its consequences. Driven to acts of deadly revenge for the macks' crimes, Henry remains an outlaw after the war; he makes stolen visits while Rhoda raises their children alone in Scuffletown, whose inhabitants are still feared and persecuted by the defeated whites. When Henry is finally forced to flee North Carolina in 1873, Rhoda chooses to stay behind, and it's a tribute to Humphreys's artistry that we understand that decision despite the passionate marital love the author has depicted. The many full-bodied characters, from Rhoda's proud mother to the white lady who proves a loyal friend despite her prejudices; the loving evocation of local customs and practices, including a bravura description of making turpentine; the detailed life of a people engaged in daily moral resistance to a diseased social order—all create a bond of community that Rhoda (and the reader) cannot think of shattering. Though the story is at times almost unbearably sorrowful, it is too richly full ever to be bleak.
A remarkable achievement from a writer who just keeps getting better.