Inspired by family lore, this first novel traces the unraveling of a 1930s Southern farming family after a fateful fire.
In 1938, a man stands near the remains of a rural home and considers the trouble wrought there. The novel then shifts to 1930 to meet farmer Yancey Riggs, serving a life sentence in a Georgia prison. In a narrative that jumps back and forth in time, readers learn that though financially strapped Riggs was cleared of arson for the fire that destroyed his home—after which he fled to California, and his wife, Eleanor, received insurance money—his former worker/tenant eventually helped convict Riggs of murder, revealing his and Riggs’ plan to perform arson. On top of that, the burned body found at the fire is that of a missing hitchhiker. The financial ruin caused by this event forces Eleanor to tell her imprisoned husband that she’s going to nursing school and she must put their two children in children’s homes until she can provide for them. This news causes a physical reaction in Riggs, who puts final plans in motion. A brief coda offers key details about what actually happened during the night that changed Riggs’ life. As Aten notes at the end of her novel, she’s drawn on family history for her fiction debut as she crafts a stylistically impressive imagining of a pivotal event in her family’s history. Given its rather musing structure, the novel can at times be repetitive—characters share what happened, but accounts of trial testimony cover the same facts—and sketchy; why, for example, is Riggs both despairing and hungry for spiritual connection? His relationships with Eleanor and the former worker remain rather shadowy, too. While readers may wish for a deeper understanding of the somewhat true story, its unsettling nature certainly leaves an impression.
An accomplished meditation on character and tragedy, disquietingly drawn from real life.