Eschewing the folksy charm of her previous titles (The Things I Know Best, 2001, etc.), Hinton serves up death and despair, with only an occasional ray of light.
The author looks into the heart of Jean Witherspoon, an old woman who finds that her husband, the incoherent victim of a stroke, has a grown daughter he never mentioned. It’s too late in the day to ask O.T. whether he knew of Lilly’s existence, but to Jean’s surprise, Lilly has been visiting him in the nursing home. Lilly’s mother waited a lifetime to tell her daughter the truth, and if a health aide had not inadvertently mentioned the younger woman’s visits, Jean never would have known. This revelation brings up poignant memories of the childhood deaths of Jean’s siblings and Jean’s stillborn infant daughter. Consumed by profound grief, she turned away from her husband. He then turned to another woman, Clara, and fathered Lilly, though he told Clara he would never leave his wife. Jean’s recollections of growing up desperately poor in the Appalachians with a blind father and a Cherokee mother add another layer of gray to the somber atmosphere of this depressing tale, though Hinton’s prose tends to positively purple in spots (it’s not just snow, it’s “a bounty of white flecks shaken from the ripped belly of the sky”). There’s a mystic streak to all this, but it’s shallow, as is the fair amount of high-minded pontificating about the inevitable disappointments of married love, finding one’s true self, and so on. Jean reaches out to Lilly, and the two form a tenuous bond. Eccentric neighbor Maude sums it up: “In the end, it isn’t how you count things that matters, it’s how the things that matter count.” Which would mean?
A slight story, and a dreary one.