This novel uses the same setting and characters from the author’s award-winning thriller The Last Child, picking up the story ten years later. It can be read as a standalone, although reading the previous book first would enrich the experience.
In The Last Child, Johnny Merrimon helped solve the mystery of what happened to his missing twin sister Alyssa. Now 23, Johnny lives alone in the isolated and forbidding back country outside of town in Raven County, North Carolina. He stays there in part because he dislikes his “celebrity” status in town from the old murder case, as well as the constant questions along the lines of “What really happened?” and “How are you holding up?” He also wants to avoid his mom, because he knows she looks at him and sees the face of his murdered twin, as well as the face of his dad who died trying to save Alyssa. The wilderness offers him escape, as well as beauty, serenity, and sustenance. Even the portion that is the swamp once occupied by slaves, Hush Arbor, is magical to him, not only figuratively, but literally. But that’s a truth Johnny doesn’t want to share.
When Johnny is in Hush Arbor, he has a supernatural awareness. He can sense movement in the grass, the water, the air, and the activities of all life around him, both seen and unseen. Moreover, he gets healed from any ailment when he is there. He loves the entanglement with nature he experiences in the Hush, and hates leaving at all.
Johnny rarely has visitors, except his best friend Jack Cross, who comes once a month for dinner. For Jack, Johnny had been “more father than Jack’s father, more brother than any brother God had seen fit to give. In every way that mattered, Johnny Merrimon had defined Jack’s childhood.”
Jack is now an attorney, and Johnny asks him to help with the legal battle to save his family’s land. Johnny owns 6,000 acres, and doesn’t want to lose it. A rich New York hedge-fund owner, William Boyd, wants it for trophy hunting. And Johnny faces a legal challenge from a descendant of Isaac Freemantle, the first freed slave in Raven County. Johnny’s ancestor had freed Isaac and given him all 6,000 acres. No one understands why that transaction took place. In addition, the deed stipulated that the land would go back to the Merrimon family when and if the last male Freemantle died. That happened ten years earlier, and the land went to Johnny. But now a female descendant, Luana Freemantle, is challenging the transfer.
Jack has only been in practice a short time, and in any event, does bankruptcy law. He asks an appellate attorney in his firm, Leslie Green, if she would take the case pro bono, since Johnny is out of money. She agrees to look into it, in part because she is one of the celebrity gawkers when it comes to Johnny. She tells Johnny that Luana could indeed have a case – not because of an error of law, but on the grounds of public policy, equity, and gender inequality.
Meanwhile, William Boyd also asks for Leslie’s help, and he is offering her twice her yearly salary as well as his fund’s hugely profitable business for her firm. He claims he only wants the land because “hunting is my passion.” But Boyd’s grandfather was born in Raven County, and Boyd is desperate for the land for reasons he won’t say.
Luana wants to sell the land for complex reasons, but her daughter Cree wants the land to keep it. Freemantle relatives also get involved in the struggle. As Johnny and Cree learn the secrets of the Hush through their dreams, the danger increases to all who are trying to interfere with the fate of this magical space.
Evaluation: There is an element of magic in this book that might put off some readers, but Hart handles it with dexterity. Rather than seeming like a “paranormal” story, Hart uses the magic to expose the history of slavery in the area, as well as a way to reveal the complex nature of temptation and greed. Through it all, the bonds of friendship and family moor the story to reality, and the mystery of what is happening adds tension and interest.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2018