Second-novelist Haynes (Mother of Pearl, 1999) prunes back her lush plotting, while maintaining both an extraordinary style and a firm grounding in her native South of the 1960s, to produce a satisfying tale of violence and redemption.
Haynes's double plot, as one of her characters might say, don't shake square. Beginning in 1961, she recounts the journey of 16-year-old Hezekiah Sheehand to Chalktown, a mythic place where folk communicate with one another on chalkboards posted on their porches. With him he carries his retarded five-year-old brother Yellababy. Their mother, Susan-Blair, has alternately worried about Yellababy and physically abused him through the years. But in her world, this don't count too strong against a woman trying to get life's floorboards straightened up. Cutting to 1955, Haynes introduces Annie and her mother Rosie, together with Aaron, Mr. Prox, and Johnny Roper—all of them involved in various ways with the death of Annie and her stillborn child. After much narrative evasion, the official inquiry lists Annie's death as suicide, though no one believes it, and Rosie soon starts posting biblical passages on her porch chalkboard. Back in 1961, Hezekiah arrives with his brother and Cathy, a curious, ponytailed girl he's met on the road, and takes up residence in Annie's abandoned house. The foundling boy immediately consumes Rosie's attention, and the town is more or less tidily healed. Presiding over both stories is Marion, a wise black neighbor to the Sheehands, who, weary and tolerant of the South's racist suffocations, is the perfect witness when the two strands finally come together.
All the trappings of southern gothic—death, race, religion, and violence among country folk—coupled with big ideas about the place of God in these proceedings. Yet Haynes's lyrical prose will captivate readers willing to overlook a few ungainly knots in the storytelling.