Harper Montgomery has lived all his life in Two Rivers, Vermont, and he has loved Betsy Parker almost all his life too, since they were twelve. They grew up, courted, and married, but on the day their daughter Shelley was born, Betsy died. That was twelve years ago, and Harper still hasn’t gotten over it.
Complicating matters is a lynching we keep reading about in flashbacks. The man killed had something to do with Betsy’s death, but we don’t find out what until the end. We do know right from the beginning though that Harper and his two best friends Ray and “Brooder” killed a man “with skin the color of blackberries” in the same year Betsy died. This is especially ironic because Harper’s mother was so liberal that she spent time in the South helping to register black voters, and also published a newsletter about civil rights.
The chapters go back and forth in time. After we learn about the lynching in the past, we return to the present, and read that a young black pregnant girl named Maggie ends up in Two Rivers subsequent to a train derailment in the town. Harper is helping to rescue the victims, and Maggie seeks him out, begging for a place to stay. Reluctantly, he takes her to his house so she has a place to rest while he figures out how to get her back home. But Maggie refuses to go home – she says she was raped and she is afraid to go back. She offers to do childcare for Shelley and to cook and clean in exchange for being able to stay. Harper gives in, at least for the short term, not realizing the impact that Maggie’s arrival will have on all of them.
Discussion: Supposedly this book is about healing and redemption, but I just didn’t see it. Harper is incredibly self-absorbed, and has trouble seeing that there is more to the universe than his own pain and loss. He “pities” his father for his supposed “weakness” vis-a-vis Harper’s mother, and yet his father seems to be twice the man Harper is. But Harper never figures that out. Moreover, he claims he “can blame every episode that caused me either embarrassment or shame on [one of his two best friends] Brooder.” Again, he takes no responsibility for anything. Even the lynching turns into Brooder’s fault. (Assigning the fault to Brooder apparently “counts” as “redemption” for that particular egregious act.)
The reader feels like saying: look, I know Betsy was the love of your young life. But it has been twelve years. Get over it! And get over yourself! Your twelve-year-old daughter is more mature than you are! And look at Maggie: what about her pain, and her courage? Will you ever transcend your self-absorption and grow up?
Evaluation: I liked this book, even though the main [living] character was irritating, and the main [dead] character wasn’t much better. There are a couple of unsolved mysteries that push the reader on, and one also hopes the protagonist really will achieve “redemption” as promised by the [once again deceptive] blurbs. The writing isn’t bad, but ultimately, I was left feeling dissatisfied with Harper’s lack of either self-awareness or atonement, not to mention, the plot in general. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting read. (I rated it 3 out of 5, which basically means – with apologies to the FTC – if you get it for free, it’s worth reading; otherwise, I wouldn’t go out of my way….)