An ambitious, if overplotted, coming-of-ager chronicles the summer of ’69, when a murder in a small Arkansas town is connected to the Vietnam War and leads to unsettling revelations.
The story is told mainly by Cherry, a gangly blond college senior, but characters now dead also tell their tales and, by adding their explications of the plot, often undercut the drama. Cherry, born and raised in Sweet Valley, where liquor can be sold only in members-only clubs, revival services are popular, and people marry young, is not sure she wants to stay on after college. Working for the summer at the local pickling plant, she and best friend Baby plan to teach when they graduate; meantime, however, they’re ready for fun and new experiences. The narrative picks up as Tripp Barlow, a handsome Vietnam vet, arrives in town the night Carlene, a former classmate of Cherry and Baby’s, is murdered. Cherry soon learns that Tripp knew war casualty Jerry Golden, the boy Carlene loved. While Carlene and Jerry tell their stories from the grave, Cherry falls in love with Tripp, experiments with pot, and goes to movies her pastor condemns. Too loving a daughter to lose her way, she understands that the summer might be the break she needs before settling down. Baby, though, whose family is from the Philippines, has led a less sheltered life, and, as the summer progresses she’s torn between seductive businessman Jackie and Bean, her long-time boyfriend who drinks too much, is abusive, and has had terrible nightmares since serving in Vietnam. By end, a stash of Jerry’s letters reveals that Tripp participated in the My Lai massacre, the murderer of Carlene is found, and a wiser Cherry is ready for fall and the future.
Nicely rendered details of southern small-town life in the ’60s, but a debut that tries to do and be too much.