In this colorful down-home drama, two young drifters stop for a time in Tennessee of a century ago, where they trade in mules and learn of local secrets amid the small-town ferment of the U.S. entering World War I.
Billy and Charles find themselves lingering in Richfield, Tennessee, after a local parvenu tricks them into buying The Midnight Cool, a beautiful mare with a murderous temperament. Charles soon has a good job trading in mules being sent overseas for British troops. He also has fallen for the parvenu’s daughter, Catherine, and must set himself up as worthy of her. Billy, somewhat sidelined, gets a back story in brief, eloquent chapters that interrupt the main narrative. In fact, Peelle (Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, 2009, etc.) seems torn between her two male leads. While Charles carries the main plot and themes (star-crossed love, patriotism, profit versus honesty, and dark family histories), he’s a bit dense and melodramatic. Billy is more likable. He has the best lines, the wit to grasp any situation quickly, and the grit to endure physical pain and the emotional wounds of one bad choice. Such choices and their consequences can seem to stand like billboards in the story—along with lines that seem scripted for a Clint Eastwood parody, like: “A mule’s got nothing but his own life to prove himself by.” Charles and Catherine face one such choice after their first night of sex. Her father’s affair with a black servant brings on more than one and sets up the book’s cruelest scene. Charles has another tough one when some of the mules in a big shipment come down with a fatal infectious disease.
Peelle isn’t subtle with these message moments, but she’s a natural storyteller with a fine sense of town life and characters and of a time when maybe irony couldn’t tarnish words like “duty.”