Swampy hideaways and a Mississippi paddlewheel steamer factor in this story of a 1921 child kidnapping, from Louisiana author Gautreaux (The Clearing, 2003, etc.).
Sam Simoneaux was a baby when his Cajun farming family in Louisiana was massacred by a clan of Arkansas outlaws, the Cloats. The sole survivor, Sam was raised lovingly by his Uncle Claude’s family, yet still felt incomplete—a key concept here. In New Orleans, he would marry and have a son, who died young. In France, arriving after the Armistice, he accidentally wounds a French girl during a cleanup operation. Back in New Orleans, on his watch as a floorwalker in a department store, a small girl is kidnapped and Sam is fired. The missing Lily forms part of a melancholy triptych for Sam, along with his dead son and the French girl. Lily’s parents, the Wellers, are musicians on an excursion boat plying the big river. Sam signs on as a bouncer, motivated by the desire to make another family whole again. A hot lead brings him to the Skadlocks, knavish rednecks living deep in the woods. They did the dirty work for the Whites, a rich, childless Kentucky couple. By revealing their identity upfront, Gautreaux robs his story of some suspense; it doesn’t help that the Whites are bloodless, one-dimensional creations. There will be several treks through the woods as Ted Weller and his teenage son get involved, and an unconvincing climax at a tiny railroad station. Sam is an appealing protagonist, goodhearted to a fault, though his late decision to confront the Arkansas Cloats (beside whom the Skadlocks are sweethearts) is wholly out of character. Where Gautreaux does score is in his depiction of life onboard, the hard grind of breaking up hillbilly fights while the band plays on.
The powerful period detail compensates for the rocky marriage between haunting theme and creaky plot.