A Mississippi high-school teacher can’t separate his hometown’s uneasy past from his own in this thoughtful novel from Yarbrough (The End of California, 2006, etc).
Loring native Luke May takes a just-the-facts approach to history, teaching his students the difficulty of pinpointing cause and effect. As the school year starts, Luke is at loose ends. His daughters have gone to college, his aging parents are in failing health, he and his wife Jennifer, an aspiring poet who teaches freshman English at a nearby college, have drifted into minimal verbal and sexual communication. Then he meets the flashy new French teacher, Maggie Sorrentino, née Calloway. Maggie left Loring as a little girl in 1962, after her father Arlan shot and killed her mother Nadine in what was ruled self defense. Luke’s father considered Arlan his best friend, although the more affluent Arlan was threatening his livelihood. The night of the killing, which was also the eve of James Meredith’s historic enrollment at Ole Miss, the two men had driven to Oxford as members of the local White Citizens Council. As Luke falls into an affair with Maggie, he begins digging to uncover the truth of what happened that night 44 years ago. From a snippet of conversation Maggie remembers overhearing as a child, Ned suspects that his father, a less-than-successful farmer and admitted racist but also a war hero and devoted husband to his now-senile wife, might have had some kind of relationship with Maggie’s mother not unlike Luke’s relationship with Maggie. More sleuthing brings up a romantic connection between Nadine and Luke’s otherwise saintly mentor, local newspaper editor Ellis Buchanan, who courageously stood up for integration when no one else did. Learning the truth has its price, and Luke pays dearly.
Loring is Yarbrough’s Yoknapatawpha County, and he uses what in other hands could be a banal plot to bring to vital life the complicated interplay of cause and coincidence in history and individual lives.