Review of “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” by Tom Franklin

Don’t you just love discovering a new author via a really good book? Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a really good book.

A word about the title: according to the author in the epigraph, southern children are taught to spell “Mississippi” as “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.” Although the title may not resonate with northerners, it seems like an apt choice once you read the book.

Larry Ott, forty-one, white, single and still living in his boyhood home, has always been a social outcast. In high school, he was accused of murdering a high school girl whose body was never found, and now another girl in the area has gone missing. Larry is a natural suspect.

Larry had a secret friend when he was younger – a black boy his age named Silas who lived with his mother in a cabin on the back of the Ott’s property. Larry and Silas were not allowed to play together, but they surreptitiously enjoyed each other’s company and hung around together until one horrible day that forced them apart.

Now, Silas has returned to Chabot, Mississippi as the town’s only Constable, a very low-level job that mostly consists of traffic monitoring. Matters of import are handled by the Gerald County Chief Investigator, Roy French.

Silas never acknowledges Larry, nor do any others in the town, except to harass him. Yet every day Larry shows up for work at his car mechanic’s shop, waiting for someone who doesn’t know his reputation – someone from out of town maybe – to need his help.

But Silas knows Larry; knows who he is and what kind of person he is. And as you find out more about the past and what brought these two together and then drove them apart, you come to understand what really happened to these girls and why.

Evaluation: I can’t tell you too much about what happens, except that this author sure knows how to tell a story! And the way he weaves the Southern culture and atmosphere into every bit of his prose is just a beautiful thing. In this passage, steeped in sensory allusions, we see Larry driving his tractor through the field. Note that even the very language chosen places this scene in a southern context:

“The Ford parted the weeds and wildflowers and set off bumblebees and butterflies and soggy grasshoppers and dragonflies, which his mother used to call snake doctors. The tractor threw its long shadow toward the far fence and he turned and began to circle the field, the privet cut back along the bob wire, the trees tall and lush, the south end still shaded and dewy and cool. He bush-hogged twice a month from March to July, but when the fall wildflowers came he let them grow. Migrating hummingbirds passed through in September, hovering around the blue salvia, which they seemed to love, chasing one another away from the blooms.”

And then there are all the cultural elements so integral the plot you couldn’t separate them out and keep the same meaning: food fried in bacon grease, coca cola, kudzu, cottonmouth snakes, catfish, drinking, racism and tolerance, chickens and blue jeans and drive-ins and gators, and “country dark nights” when you could walk in the woods “where the treetops stitched out the stars.” There are drunken fathers, quietly suffering mothers, cruel kids and oblivious teachers. But there is also humor, nuance, friendship, sacrifice, wisdom, and love.

This book has beautiful prose, and a page-turning story. I can’t really identify its genre: it could be literary fiction, or suspense, or racial-conflict, or all of the above. But it’s very well-crafted, and memorable, and I highly recommend this selection of the Southern Indie Booksellers for its list of Fall 2010 Okra Picks — “great southern books, fresh off the vine.”

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by William Morrow, 2010

Awards:

Barry Award Nominee for Best Novel (2011)
Anthony Award Nominee for Best Novel (2011)
Hammett Prize Nominee (2010)
Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Contemporary Mystery (2010)
Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller (2010)
Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel (2011)
Willie Morris Award (2010)
CWA Gold Dagger Award (2011)
Alabama Author Award – Fiction (2011)

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22 Responses to Review of “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” by Tom Franklin

  1. diane says:

    WOW…sounds great, and it’s on my library wish list — great review, so glad u loved it.

  2. Barbara says:

    This sounds very good. Actually, I learned how to spell Mississippi the same way when I was growing up in Illinois. Now I know that most downstate Illinois residents’ ancestors came there from south of the Mason-Dixon line so our semi-southern culture was inherited.

  3. Ti says:

    This one caught my eye but I was waiting for someone to review it so thank you! It looks yummy… like I could eat it up in one sitting.

  4. zibilee says:

    I so want to read this one and have been hearing nothing but good things about it. It looks like you loved it too, so I am taking that as a cue to add this one to shopping cart. Loved your review, and I also loved the quote you chose to highlight! Thanks!

  5. Steph says:

    How fortuitous! Some friends and I were just talking about this book at a party recently… Namely the conversation devolved into discussion as to whether the “crooked letter” bit would actually help you learn how to spell Mississippi more easily than just saying the actual letters (as Northerners do). I maintained that if there was some kind of rhyme, it would make sense but since there wasn’t, I couldn’t see how it facilitated learning. But at the very least I said I would start spelling my name “Crooked Letter, T, E, Humpback, H”.

    • Steph,

      I learned to spell Mississippi from those “follow the bouncing ball” cartoons when I was little. The song was actually called M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I and what I remember most is the line “it used to be so hard to spell, it used to make me cry.” The only problem is, now, when I want to spell it, I have to sing that stupid song to myself!

  6. Sandy says:

    This was a featured book at SIBA and I don’t know how I walked out of there without it. A 4.5 is a huge rating for you, and I can’t just ignore it. I love how you describe the South…it is every bit of that and more.

  7. Will have to read , thanks for sharing.

  8. bermudaonion says:

    I learned to spell Mississippi that way and just assumed everyone learned it – I didn’t know that’s a Southern thing! You’ve got me very excited about this book now – it sounds amazing!!

  9. Staci says:

    This is a book that I absolutely must read. Loved your evaluation and it has prompted me to find it now!!!!!!

  10. She says:

    I remember learning how to spell Mississippi that way! Thanks for the memory. It seems like a beautiful (and haunting) book!

  11. Belle says:

    Sounds like a really, really good read – just the synopsis is very intriguing.

  12. Jenners says:

    This sounds fantabulous. Thanks! I’ll be reading this one at one point.

  13. Mystica says:

    I liked the review very much so now to go look for this. Also liked the title though of course spelling it out was never taught to me!

  14. Julie P. says:

    CAN NOT WAIT to read this one. Glad to know that you enjoyed it!

  15. Ooh … you have me hooked! Now I want to know the rest of the story. 🙂

  16. Marie says:

    Sounds fab! I need to read this, huh? 🙂

  17. Amanda says:

    I went to elementary school in South Carolina and that’s certainly how we learned to spell Mississippi. There’s a certain cant to the phrase that I can’t hear it without thinking of, a strong accent and rhythm. That’s actually what drew me to this book in the first place, was hearing someone explain the title. I dont’ read a lot of southern fiction, but i was happy to win an audiobook copy of this book during Readathon. I can’t wait until it gets here!

  18. Trish says:

    I’ve been hearing such great thing about this book–which means I usually stay away until the heat cools down–but I like your inability to describe this one or put it into certain genre. Says a lot without saying anything!

    Fascinating bit about the title. I learned how to spell Mississippi as a little girl in Canada but I think it was to gain membership to “club.” Had to spell it forwards and backwards. 😉

  19. Rita K says:

    Going to read this – your review shows up on the first page of reviews for this book. Way to go!

  20. I really enjoyed this one, too. I did catch on to the who-done-it part earlier than I would have liked and it did make the book less than perfect for me. I really loved Larry especially. I’m going to read more of Tom Franklin, too.

  21. Pingback: Book Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter « ReviewsbyLola's Blog

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