In this novel set in the early 1900s, one act tragically ruins the lives of two families.
Based on a true story, this work of speculative fiction explores the murder of Ella Maud “Nell” Cropsey, the attractive, 19-year-old standout of a large family of transplanted Northerners in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. After a breakup with Jim Wilcox, her longtime beau, Nell disappears. Some speculate that she ran off to seek her fortune in a large metropolis while others fear that she harmed herself. But after her body pops up in a local river weeks later, suspicion falls on rough-edged Jim. He mistakenly believes his innocence will protect him, oblivious to the lynch-mob mentality festering in his hometown. Jim gets convicted of second-degree murder because of the flaws in the prosecution’s case and is sent to prison for 30 years. But, throughout this process, the victim’s older sister, Olive, nicknamed Ollie, and her stern father, William, share a secret about Nell’s death, which they refuse to divulge even under oath. As a result, Jim is incarcerated for a crime that he never committed, eventually getting a pardon decades into his sentence. His health in decline, Jim stubbornly returns to “Betsy City” to start over. But there is no second act for Jim. Despite people trying to help him, he slips into alcoholism. Just before his death, Ollie tells him the truth, but there is little he can gain from it, save peace of mind. Nicastro’s (The Isle of Stone, 2016, etc.) clever drama centers on three people: spinster Ollie, taciturn patriarch William, and Jim, the man caught in their conspiracy. But another spectral presence throughout is Nell, whose joie de vivre almost succeeds in inspiring the inhibited people around her. There’s a palpable sense of opportunities lost because of her death at such a young age. In this well-researched book, Nicastro cannily reveals just enough about Nell’s death to make readers uneasy until just before the wistful conclusion. Nell is gone, but her death also effectively ends the lives of Jim, Ollie, William, and Mary, the sisters’ long-suffering mother. The author skillfully makes his point that one misdeed produces many victims.
The author continues his successful run of historical fiction with this thought-provoking crime tale.