A competent if slightly flat instance of classic southern gothic, set in shabbily reconstructed Loring, Mississippi, during1902, as the federal government appoints a “colored” woman postmistress.
The genre promises buried legacies, burdens of guilt, and a handful of cruel maulings, and Yarbrough’s compact second novel (after The Oxygen Man, 1999, etc.) easily satisfies these programmatic requirements (though a buried secret revealed near the close proves decidedly unsurprising). Loda Jackson, a college-educated woman whose sophistication distinguishes her from many in Loring, takes up her role in the post office just as Tandy Payne shambles his way back into town. Tandy is a gambler, smooth talker, and overall failure who returns home only to meet up again with his brother Leighton, Loring’s mayor and newspaper editor whose unbroken string of modest achievements makes a shaming contrast with Tandy’s failures. Tandy, Leighton, and Loda are linked in a past dominated by Sam Payne, father to the brothers and vicious slave owner whose possessions once included Loda’s mother. Loda and her husband, Seaborn, an insurance company owner known as “the biggity nigger” for his stature and income, quickly become obvious targets of resentment for Tandy, who begins the simple task of stirring up trouble over her appointment. After he brutalizes a friend of Loda’s, she submits her resignation, which is declined personally by President Theodore Roosevelt. This federal intervention spurs Tandy on in his newfound political career, and before long a black man is murdered. Leighton and Seaborn, the story’s moral centers, are repeatedly thwarted in their efforts to keep the peace during a crisis that the author never really resolves. We simply meet Loda years later as she recalls the ghosts of her past; her decision to stay, we realize, was prompted by domestic and historical necessity more than courage.
Few characters here get what they deserve in life, a characteristically southern insight Yarbrough delivers in fluid prose.