Rating scale: 5=Loved it, 4=Liked it, 3=Ok, 2=Disappointed, 1=Hated it. I look for well developed characters, compelling stories.
Not since "Night of the Hunter" can I remember a more charismatically evil "preacher" captivating a community and placing innocent children in peril. Two people know the danger in the preacher - the sheriff who has no legal evidence to act, and Adelaide, an elderly woman of the church who has appointed herself protector of the children in the congregation. These two are moral anchors of the community, in their own ways keepng the peace. But then the curiosity of two brothers sets events in motion that gain momentum and become explosive in a matter of only days.
Wiley Cash has perfectly captured the language of the region, with a finely tuned ear for genuine dialogue and prose. The characters are complexly gritty, tender, damaged and innocent, Told by three first-person voices, we get an inside look at life in the mountain country of North Carolina, where communities are close knit and closed in, and ruled by tobacco and fundamentalist religion. The three voices - Adelaide, Sheriff Barefield, and Jess Hall, a 10 year old boy terrified at being thrust center stage in the machinations of an adult world he can't understand, are all voiced impeccably by a trio of accomplished narrators. I generally avoid multiple-reader books, but seeing that Lorna Raver was included convinced me to give it a try. (Her performance of "Fried Green Tomatoes" was exquisite.) I was not disappointed.
To me, the book that comes closest in mood and tone to this one is "The Orchardist". I suspect that readers who enjoyed that book will enjoy this one, and those who did not, will not enjoy it. In both books, the sense of time and the land is beautifully evoked through the eloquently descriptive writing. Successfully conveying the space, the cold and the isolation of the vast landscape allows understanding of the fear, awe and ultimately commitment to the land that the main characters, Mabel and Jack, experience. For them, the sorrow of an earlier loss has left them lonely and distanced from each other. But the mysterious appearance of a child who they need as much as she needs them, opens up their hearts and teaches them how to live again, another theme similar to "The Orchardist". The mystery of the girl - is she real or not - adds a touch of magic for the reader as it does for Mabel and Jack. That said, I would advise readers hoping that this is a magical fairy tale to think twice before downloading. As in "The Orchardist", the story is told with little sentimentality. The life and death struggle of surviving in the Alaskan wilderness through trapping and hunting, freezing and starving, makes it clear that this is an unforgiving life for the unprepared. Detailed discussions of animals being hunted are included and are not for those tender hearted towards the animals.
Some readers are dissatisfied with the ending, but I was ok with it. I don't see any other way it could have ended, and found it consistent with what came before. The supporting characters are somewhat shallowly written, but overall I did not find it a major distraction.
I liked this book. A lot. But it’s a challenge to explain why because there were things about it that were hard to like. The writing is outstanding. Woodrell uses economy and eloquence in a narrative filled with secrets, resentment, and sometimes, when least expected, dry dark humor. (His description of the “accidental” demise of a well hated citizen is priceless.) He has written characters vividly without letting us really get to know any of them well. It’s this arm’s length distance that makes it hard to become fully immersed in the story. But looking back I suspect that was the author’s intention. Alma, telling her version of the story, is herself hard to get close to – prickly, resentful, suspicious, and unyielding. Her distance from those she is describing keeps us at that same distance.
Alternating first person narration through Alma and her grandson, we learn from Alma’s memory what lead up to and followed the fire that killed 42 people, including her wayward but beloved sister. No one is ever called to account, and Alma's need for justice solidifies to a hard stone of anger towards those in the small town who are content to just let it go, ostracizing the troublemakers who refuse to do so. The author often switches to third person voice to relay biographical vignettes of other fire victims, and of characters whose roles remain unclear until the end when all the pieces are connected.
These narrative switchbacks caused a bit of auditory whiplash, making me hit the 30 second back-up many times when normal attention to traffic distracted me just enough to miss who was speaking and who was being spoken of. The print version would have made it easy see when a new narrative section was starting - it was not so clear just by listening. I have reluctantly dropped a star from the overall experience because those frequent back-ups took me out of the story just a little too often. But I can also happily give 5 stars to the story for the astounding writing quality and a tale that has stuck with me for the two days since I finished it. This may be a good Audible/Kindle combination for members who use both.