Reeves makes her debut here with a deeply moving, haunting tale of a man that tries to do the right thing and finds his entire life miserably, horribly gone wrong instead. Thank you to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC; this book is available for purchase March 1, 2016.
Roscoe marries Marie, the woman of his dreams, a woman that speaks little but recognizes every bird call in the state of Alabama. When her father dies, he gives up being an electrician, work that he loves, in order to move to the farm they inherit. Unlike his father-in-law, Roscoe’s own father has always looked down on farming as a poor man’s last resort. Roscoe thinks he has found a compromise by bringing electricity, and with it mechanized farm tools, to Marie’s father’s farm; he won’t have to sweat in the fields, and he has found a way to continue doing the work her prefers. Pirating electricity from the lines out on the highway is against the law, but it’s nothing to make a man do hard time. If he is discovered, he’ll pay a fine and the electric company will install a meter. No harm, no foul.
That’s what he thinks, anyway.
Everything goes to hell in the blink of an eye when someone dies grabbing hold of a live wire located on his improvised set up. He is charged with manslaughter; with a halfway decent attorney, he should be able to get the sentence suspended or reduced, since no harm was intended, but Marie chooses not to hire anyone to represent him. She tells the state to give him a court appointed attorney, and instead she pays for an attorney for the man that has assisted him, knowing that the state of Alabama will come down harder on a Black man, a man that has worked for her family since she was a tiny child.
She can afford two attorneys, as we later learn. It isn’t about the money. It’s about blame. It’s about cold, hard vengeance.
We follow Roscoe as he makes his way through the trial, bewildered not to find Marie in the courtroom. We follow him through his years in prison, a system that tells the public it is there to correct bad habits and teach men skills they can use for the future. It’s a cruel, cold lie. And so although Roscoe’s experience is better in some ways than that of Wilson, who is sent to the end of the prison reserved for men of color, his sentence is much longer, with parole denied again and again as Marie fails to advocate for him.
Reeves is a genius with prose. Were I to rate this book solely on her skill as a writer, this would be a five star review, hands down. The kind of lyrical quality shown here is not a thing that can be taught; at some point, the word smithery put to use here is a matter of talent, and Reeves possesses enough for all Alabama.
My sole concern here is credibility. I don’t want to give too much away because you should read this novel, but I have to say that the way the last portion of the book plays out could never, never occur in the Jim Crow heart of Dixie. One could almost imagine some of it occurring in a different way, one closely guarded and unseen by the community, but to have things set up as they are when Roscoe finally gets out of prison and have the local storekeeper be aware of it, regard it as either normal or as private business that is no concern of his, strains credulity beyond the most magical prose. That house and farm would have been burned to the ground. It could never have happened.
Reeves has developed Roscoe’s character with depth and intimacy, and this is the greatest strength of her story; the first 75% of the plot is also well paced, with tension gently building as a story arc is meant to do. But the spell is broken during the last portion by the problem mentioned above.
Reeves is an author likely to go forward and do great things, and this is a strong debut. Apart from the one distraction mentioned, this book is highly recommended to those that love good fiction.