The first novel of Collins’ (The Hunter of Hertha, 2015, etc.) Midnight Valley Quartet tells the story of a Kentuckian’s long fight for survival.
From early childhood, Randi Jo Gaylor finds the world stacked against her. As one of 13 children in Notown, a poor, white section of Crimson County, Kentucky, in the 1940s, Randi Jo, dressed in sackcloth, spends her days begging and stealing food to supplement her meager diet of beans. Times are hard enough when her father is working as a coal miner, but whenever he gets locked up in jail or incapacitated with black lung, they become dire. As the years go on, Randi Jo confronts abuse, murder, racism, and burdensome family secrets. This traumatic life is seemingly dictated by Notown itself, where “meanness ran in people’s veins.” Randi Jo hopes to escape her environment when she becomes a teenage bride to a young man from a comparatively wealthy neighboring town, but the young couple eventually ends up back in Notown, nonetheless. Decades pass, and Randi Jo goes through a divorce, a violent marriage to a low-level gangster, and further degradation. At times, the tragedies of Randi Jo’s life come with dizzying speed, but the strong first-person narration and sympathetic characters keep readers emotionally invested in the twisting narrative. There are some awkward formal aspects to the novel—a “Fear Angel” motif is heavy-handed, and a 1980s storyline initially feels forced—but the way Collins portrays Randi Jo’s development over decades of trauma is quite impressive. The protagonist is supported by a rich cast of secondary characters, primarily her family members, who deal with the hands they’ve been dealt in their own ways. The scope of emotional experience and brutality in this novel is vast, yielding a rich, evocative tale of one woman’s trials. “Your life,” Randi Jo’s daughter observes, “has been about surviving it.”
An ambitious story of a tough woman’s experiences across four decades.