A world gone is richly evoked in Virginian author Ashcom’s first novel (Lost Hound, a nonfiction collection, not reviewed), as he uses knowledge of place, horses, and hounds to fine effect in a gentle, episodic coming-of-age tale.
To the adults, white and black alike, the land is “Mr. Jefferson’s country,” the Blue Ridge foothills of western Virginia, but to Charlie Lewis, who moved there at six with his city-bred parents just after WWII, it’s a paradise demanding to be explored. Left to his own devices by his absent manufacturing-executive father and his beautiful but withdrawn mother, Charlie latches on to Matthew, the wise, powerful black man hired to look after the farm where Charlie’s family rents their house. But even Matthew can’t curb the boy’s wild impulses: told not to go into the hog pen to get a closer look at the mean old boar, he does so anyway, escaping by the skin of his teeth; warned not to get close to a black-hearted logger cutting trees on the farm, Charlie intervenes when the man puts out the eye of one of his horses and is almost bull-whipped himself; told to wait on a decision about what to do with the carcass of his favorite mule, old one-eyed Bat, he persuades the owner of the only backhoe in the county to dig a grave—thereby bringing his rural paradise one step closer to modernity. Charlie loves animals, whether it be Bat, who rambles around the countryside behind him, or his old bird-dog Uncle Dan, whom Charlie couldn’t persuade to leave the barnyard until he learned to speak the dog’s language. But times are changing, and so is Charlie: the boyhood adventures, perilous though they may be, are ultimately overshadowed by the harsher realities of race and death.
Telling the tale in episodes and through different voices tends to fragment any larger effects, but even so this is a story resplendent and sonorous in its details.