Winter Sunlight

Book rec

Lately I've been trying to work my way through my unread paperback box. These are a grab bag of books acquired from used bookstores, garage sales, and heaven knows where else, most of them by authors I've never heard of. Usually this results in a lot of dreck with some tolerable reads, but sometimes I'll stumble onto a gem.

Like this one: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. It's partly a murder mystery and partly a slice-of-life glimpse of small-town Mississippi, moving back and forth between the early '80s and the present day.

Thirty years ago, a secret friendship develops between Larry, a white redneck farm kid, and Silas, the son of the black squatters who live on their land. Things blow up between them in ways that are probably predictable given that it's rural Mississippi. Three decades later, Silas got out, went to college and became a cop, while Larry got sucked into the downward spiral of small-town poverty and is now the town pariah, blamed for the rape and murder of a young woman who went missing after a date with him.

Now another girl has gone missing under similar circumstances, and Larry is the prime suspect. Silas has to figure out whodunnit while also confronting everything that happened between him and Larry all those years ago.

Content warning: the plot revolves around the rape/murder of two young women, and this is very much Silas and Larry's book, so there are only a handful of female characters anyway and all of them are in the background. I know that's an understandable dealbreaker for some. Also, due to the book's setting and theme, there is a ton of textual racism and racial slurs to be navigated, as well as the sharp edge of rural poverty.

However, this book hit my friendship/family/reconciliation buttons hard, while also managing to avoid (at least I felt so) most of the cliches that I would expect to run into in fiction about race relations in the South in a book written by a white author. The characters are flawed and unpredictable, the general depiction of life in small-town Mississippi (the good and the bad) felt believable for both the black and white characters (the '80s are not the '50s are not the 2000s, and the different flavor of life in different eras was well done, I thought). Nobody learns a ~valuable lesson about racism~, and Larry's unconscious racism and Silas's cutting defense mechanisms are both realistically portrayed. It's a painful book at times, an uncomfortable one at others, but overall there's a sense of warmth and optimism that flows through the book -- a feeling that things could either careen headlong into tragedy or come out okay, and at any point, individual characters' choices could give it the push that's going to turn it one way or the other: is this the time we do the right thing, the humane thing -- the time we manage to be better than our past selves, better than the people we grew up around ... or not?

On the basis of this book, I also checked out The Tilted World from the library, co-written by Franklin and his wife Beth Ann Fennelly, and set during Prohibition in rural Mississippi. Very good so far, with a female bootlegger, a pair of prohibition agents investigating a murder deep in moonshine country, and an Accidental Surprise Baby they acquire after a shooting.

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Oh, Tom and Beth Ann.

Bless their hearts.

They were just in the last episode of our Treme rewatch, and Josh and I had to each say ten snarky things before we could continue.

I know Tom's a good writer (I haven't read Beth Ann's poetry although I did gigglesnort through her latest ode to hummingbirds in Garden and Gun), but she's so unbearably pretentious and he's just douchey. He would get drunk and go out to the restaurant Josh worked at and be so rude when we lived in Oxford. I think she's the chair of the MFA program there now.

Which is not at all a condemnation of your rec of these books if it sounds like it is. Just some personal anecdata. I really miss living in a place where I regularly interacted with the literati!

Haha. I had actually gotten the "pretentious" just from the one interview I read with them, in which she talks about how she was surprised she ended up enjoying the novel-writing process with her husband because she had never imagined herself wasting her literary talent on a novel (or words to that effect). Which is extra hilarious because I'm used to litfic people being snobby about people who write genre fiction, but I hadn't realized that poets are that snobby about people who write ~fiction~.

Ha.

They still somehow manage to write engaging books, though!
LOL

I am not surprised.

Oh poets can be super de duper snobby. Half the time I hear the word lovely anymore I cringe from the way they all called each other "my lovely" in the MFA program.

This sounds really good, and just the sort of thing I love. Thank you for the rec!
Oh, Tom and Beth Ann.

Bless their hearts.

They were just in the last episode of our Treme rewatch, and Josh and I had to each say ten snarky things before we could continue.

I know Tom's a good writer (I haven't read Beth Ann's poetry although I did gigglesnort through her latest ode to hummingbirds in Garden and Gun), but she's so unbearably pretentious and he's just douchey. He would get drunk and go out to the restaurant Josh worked at and be so rude when we lived in Oxford. I think she's the chair of the MFA program there now.

Which is not at all a condemnation of your rec of these books if it sounds like it is. Just some personal anecdata. I really miss living in a place where I regularly interacted with the literati!