In 1920 Indiana, a threatened lynching becomes a magnet for two women navigating different physical and emotional paths in this engrossing work.
“You are speaking in originalities," says the heroine of Hunt’s previous novel (Neverhome, 2014, etc.). The line applies as well to the book's well-crafted writing, rich plot, and doughty lead, a woman disguised as a man in the Union Army during the Civil War. Hunt’s new book raises his own high bar further with an almost fablelike view of prejudice and cruelty some 60 years after emancipation. He calls whites cornsilks and blacks cornflowers, so the lynching stems from this allegation: "Some cornflowers shot a cornsilk and set a hundred houses on fire." The cornsilks head for the town of Marvel expecting to enjoy a “rope party.” One group’s adventures along the way are narrated by Ottie Lee Henshaw, secretary to a businessman and wife to Dale, owner of a massive pig. They get a flat tire, commandeer a mule-drawn wagon, visit a church supper and a prayer meeting, and find out more about themselves than they expected. The book’s second big section is narrated by Calla Destry, a tough teenage cornflower orphan who has been taken in by a local black couple and then, in other ways, by a smooth-talking cornsilk. That’s the man Calla sets out to find because she’s in trouble. Her meanderings occupy roughly the same time frame as the first half, while her different route intersects the others’ in intriguing ways. The split-screen view highlights and breaches the racial divide. The lynching remains mostly offstage. Hunt finds history or the big events useful framing devices, but he is more interested in how words can do justice to single players and life’s fraught moments.
Hunt brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s grotesques and Barry Hannah’s bracingly inventive prose and cranks. He is strange, challenging, and a joy to read.