Revisiting the 1950s murder spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, romanticized in the classic 1973 movie Badlands, Ward, in her first novel, places her sympathies clearly with the victims.
The author follows three characters at different moments in their interwoven lives. In 1991, Lowell Bowman is a Manhattan antiquities dealer whose marriage is on the brink of collapse. We soon realize that Lowell’s parents were murdered by Starkweather and Fugate in Lincoln, Nebraska, when he was a boy. His wife Susan wants him to go to their former home in upstate New York and retrieve a safe deposit box he has secretly rented for years. Emotionally closed on many levels, racked by survivor’s guilt, he reluctantly travels upstate, not sure if he’s leaving Susan for good. In 1959, Susan is a 13-year-old whose troubled family has just moved to Lincoln. She’s first drawn to the Starkweather story for its adolescent romanticism, but as her mother moves toward abandoning Susan and her father, the girl shifts her obsession to the tragedy of the Bowmans’ orphaned son. While saving her best friend’s mother from possible suicide, Susan at last meets Lowell, and their attraction is immediate. In 1957, Caril Fugate is a dull-witted but conniving 14-year-old girl wildly infatuated with Starkweather, and, as his murder spree begins, she plays the part of passive participant. When she and Starkweather come to the Bowman home, she’s drawn to Mrs. Bowman but does nothing to help her when the opportunity arises. Ward, who has based the Bowmans on her own family, shows no sympathy for Fugate, portraying her as stereotypical white trash. In prison in 1976, Fugate still denies blame, viewing herself as victim. The obvious irony lies in the way guilt stains the life of the victim more than of the perpetrator.
Although Lowell and Susan become reconciled, this is a sad, angry book, full of raw emotions elegantly phrased.