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by Ron Rash

Pub Date: April 8th, 2006
ISBN: 0-8050-7866-5
Publisher: Henry Holt

Civil War ghosts hover over a scrappy teenager and his surrogate father in a Southern tale that mixes suspense, coming-of-age and historical elements.

Travis Shelton is a daredevil, a 17-year-old high-school dropout, bitterly at odds with his mean-spirited daddy, a tobacco farmer in the North Carolina mountains. Leonard Shuler, 20 years his senior, is a bootlegger, drug-dealer and former teacher who lost his job, wife and beloved daughter after being the innocent victim of a drug bust. The two meet when Travis steals marijuana plants off the land of Carlton Toomey, a notorious brawler, and sells them to Leonard. Travis pushes his luck; his third time trespassing, Toomey and son Hubert catch him and cut his foot so badly he requires surgery. The incident leads to a final rupture with his daddy, whereupon Travis seeks sanctuary in Leonard’s trailer. This is granted reluctantly, for Leonard’s already sheltering one stray, Dena, a pill-popping loser, but books bring them together. Leonard is an authority on the 1863 Shelton Laurel Massacre, when Confederate troops killed their Union neighbors. He is the descendant of a Confederate doctor forced to participate, while Travis has kin among the victims. The ex-teacher piques the boy’s interest in the affair, and they visit the nearby massacre site twice; meanwhile, Leonard is prepping Travis for his GED. Rash works manfully to mesh the ancient enmities with his protagonists’ problems over 100 years later, but the strain is evident. The novel drifts in the middle, as Travis gets serious with Lori, his first-ever girlfriend, while Leonard gets serious about his own life and stops dealing. Then Lori makes a seemingly minor miscalculation, and Travis unravels again. The Toomeys return, and the story roars back to life, with white-knuckle suspense right up to the end.

It lacks the seamless strength of Rash’s terrific Saints at the River (2004), this is nonetheless thoughtful, above-average entertainment.