In the wake of World War I in the small, Southern town of Bellhaven, South Carolina, the town folk believe they’ve found a little slice of heaven in a mysterious chapel in the woods. But they soon realize that evil can come in the most beautiful of forms.The people of Bellhaven have always looked to Ellsworth Newberry for guidance, but after losing his wife and his future as a professional pitcher, he is moments away from testing his mortality once and for all. Until he finally takes notice of the changes in his town . . . and the cardinals that have returned. Upon the discovery of a small chapel deep in the Bellhaven woods, healing seems to fall upon the townspeople, bringing peace after several years of mourning. But as they visit the “healing floor” more frequently, the people begin to turn on one another, and the unusually tolerant town becomes anything but.The cracks between the natural and supernatural begin to widen, and tensions rise. Before the town crumbles, Ellsworth must pull himself from the brink of suicide, overcome his demons, and face the truth of who he was born to be by leading the town into the woods to face the evil threatening Bellhaven.
POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel includes scenes of lynching and other hate crimes, suicide, suicide attempts, and demonic possession / exorcism.
Post-World War I, there is a special little chapel in the woods behind the quaint town of Bellhaven, South Carolina. This chapel provides visitors with an otherworldly kind of peace and healing as well as offering the opportunity to communicate with deceased loved ones. But as people start to, shall we say "overvisit", the citizens of Bellhaven actually begin to turn on one another. The shimmer of the place starts to wear off, leading people to act out in varying degrees of animosity and violence... and it all seems to be connected to the arrival of Lou Eddington, the new owner of the previously abandoned Bellhaven plantation.
Lifelong resident Ellsworth Newberry, scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers in his youth, once looked forward to a shot at becoming a MLB pitcher. After fighting in the war, Ellsworth returns home an amputee. Not long after, his wife, Eliza, is tragically killed in a church fire while trying to save a mother and child from the flames set by the KKK. Raphael, the little boy, survives, but his mother does not so Raphael is taken in to be raised by Eliza's best friend, Anna Belle.
Ellsworth does notice odd occurrences around town -- namely plants everywhere blooming all at once and out of season -- but he is hesitant to fall in with the chapel adoration crowd. Maybe it's his military experience, but he can't help but be guarded around that which he can't quite understand or logically explain. Such is the case with Lou Eddington. While Anna Belle finds the man nice enough, Ellsworth isn't so convinced. Will time prove Ellsworth's suspicions correct? All I'll say is that the stunt Lou pulls with the "gift"... yeah, pretty jerk maneuver in my book.
Then there's young Raphael. "No last name, just Raphael", as he explains. Ellsworth starts off having a bit of a grudge against Raphael, as Ellsworth sees the child as the reason for his wife's death. Raphael is aware of this wall, but he is determined to develop a relationship with Ellsworth. Over time, Ellsworth grudgingly begins to accept Raphael's presence and does start to converse with him, allowing for important healing conversations to begin.
Raphael continues to remind the townspeople that the chapel is "bad medicine" (thanks Raph, now I can't get Bon Jovi out of my head). With the help of Anna Belle and Raphael, Ellsworth works to push through his sometimes suicidal depression to come forth and lead his neighbors away from the "fools gold" chapel (as some dubb it), urging them to find strength in numbers so that they may fight the evil that has consumed the once peaceful town.
"Our town gathering place was burned down three years ago because of hatred. Then we got muddled up with the war and its repercussions. It's long past time now that we find a way to gather again. Our beliefs may be different. Some may not believe at all. But we have the same questions, the same needs, the same desire for good to prevail. And it's time to focus again on what brings us together instead of what could tear us apart." ~Ellsworth
Within its plot, All Things Bright and Strange incorporates historical topics such as 17th-18th century slavery, racism / race riots throughout the 1920s, and the long running fight against the hate crimes of the KKK. Portions of the story also touch upon Prohibition and labor union issues. Additionally, the book quietly interjects important topics such as the aftermath illnesses and struggles -- emotional and societal -- of war veterans (in this case, WW1 vets, but much of what is described is still very much a reality for modern day vets).
Keeping in mind that the character Ellsworth is a military veteran, be aware that portions of the story do depict some graphic violence. In fact, in terms of plot, I'd even say this novel skims the borders of the horror genre (even being published by a Christian publishing house). It's still tame compared to the darker works of Ted Dekker or Frank Peretti, but still.
Markert keeps on with his trend of crafting wonderfully unique plots with just the right touch of otherworldly, magical realism-style storytelling that stir up that sense of wonder in me and make me eagerly anticipate any new release from him.
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.
In the throes of a quarter-life crisis, Jiminy Davis abruptly quits law school and flees Chicago for her grandmother Willa's farm in rural Mississippi. In search of peace and quiet, Jiminy instead stumbles upon more trouble and turmoil than she could have imagined. She is shocked to discover that there was once another Jiminy - the daughter of her grandmother's longtime housekeeper, Lyn, who was murdered along with Lyn's husband four decades earlier in a civil rights era hate crime. With the help of Lyn's nephew, Bo, Jiminy sets out to solve the cold case, to the dismay of those who would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.
After suffering increasingly crippling anxiety, depression and extreme exhaustion, twenty-five year old Jiminy Davis decides to drop out of her Chicago law school and return to her grandmother Willa's farm in rural Fayeville, Mississippi. Once settled in, she stumbles upon a family mystery / unsolved crime from the 1960s featuring a different Jiminy. This other Jiminy was the daughter of Willa's black housekeeper, Lyn. Lyn's daughter and husband were murdered in a hate crime, but the killer was never brought forward. The local police instead decided to label the deaths as "accidental drowning".
Consistency was a virtue adults overrated so they didn't have to focus on how utterly boring everyday existence was.
Though law school might have proven to be too much, modern day Jiminy can't resist trying to solve this cold case, hopefully bringing justice to her namesake. Enlisting the help of Lyn's nephew, medical student Bo, Jiminy hits up the library's newspaper archives and jumps right in to interviewing the older citizens of Fayeville who knew and remembered 1960s Jiminy and her father.
She learned to be quiet and small, to disappear into backgrounds, to suffocate her sentences before they could betray her. She learned to bottle herself up.
It won't take long for the reader to see modern day Jiminy going into her investigation with a cringe-inducing naivety. It seems that she just can't honestly fathom that racism would still exist in this day... I mean, we've progressed SO much, right?! Girl gets the shock of her life when she tries to start up something romantic with Bo and not even a full day of official coupledom passes between them before Bo & Jiminy come face-to-face with death threats from local KKK members (posing as "concerned citizens"). Jiminy also seems shocked that virtually no one in town, even now, wants to come forward with the truth. Why is everyone encouraging her to just leave the past in the past?
"Do I remind you of my mom? Do I seem like I'm going crazy?" she inquired anxiously.
Willa continued buttering her biscuit, and for a moment Jiminy wondered if she'd even heard. Jiminy had a tendency to speak too softly, and for all she knew, her grandmother might be going deaf as well.
But just as Jiminy was about to repeat her question more loudly, Willa cleared her throat.
"You seem like you need a good, long rest," she said. "The world's what's gone crazy. You just got old enough to notice."
This is a pretty short novel, less than 300 pages. While it touches upon an important topic -- that racism is still very much a real issue in the world today -- for much of the novel Gore still treads pretty lightly around the issue, tiptoeing where you'd expect or hope to have her characters stomp in combat-ready. The plot itself also takes time to heat up. Much of this book just felt like it was left on simmer a little too long.
That said, the character development is actually decently done (if you're a patient reader), lyrical descriptions in parts, and there are some honestly moving scenes and truly great, memorable lines within the dialogue. This is one of those stories I'd recommend sticking with til the end (especially since it's a short read anyway) because the plot intensity definitely delivers in the closing chapters.
Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.
Just after his 17th birthday, Thomas McNulty and his friend, John Cole, decide to enlist in the US Army as a way to escape their bleak home lives. This decision takes them through service during the Indian and Civil Wars. While they may have anticipated great adventures, they had no way of knowing the horrors of war that awaited them.
The first half of the novel focuses on the Indian War years, as the boys not only learn basic soldiering, but also how to survive all the different types of weather and terrain as they march or ride across the country. Mother Nature brings them battles of her own in the form of vicious heat over the flatlands, freezing winters in camps with beyond meager supplies, fever epidemics, and food shortages (even the horses are starving to death).
Racism of the day is another strong theme in this work. Though not written as one of the novel's racist characters himself, Thomas points out to the reader various examples he sees throughout the course of his life. For one, an Army acquaintance of Thomas and John's falls in love with an Ogalala Sioux woman, fathers a son with her. Thomas's response to the news: "I guess love laughs at history a little." Then there's John himself, who is part Native American... apparently that "part" is visible enough in his appearance for him to get a dose of hate speech directed his way.
We were two wood shavings of humanity in a rough world.. (Thomas re: him and John)... You had to love John Cole for what he chose never to say. He said plenty of the useful stuff.
There's also the matter of Thomas and his friends working at a theater between tours of duty, a job that occasionally has them doing minstrel shows in blackface. I'd also mention that there is a description near the end of the book where the men remember coming upon 30 black people who had recently been hanged together. I warn you, this description is mildly graphic.
In truth, there's a strong dose of graphic material throughout the whole novel. Chapter 2 is mostly about hunting, killing, and cutting up buffalo. Chapter 3 focuses on massacring Indians. The gritty, graphic nature of the writing only increases as you approach the closing chapters of the story.
Chapter 12 starts the Civil War experiences, sending Thomas and John to Boston, Massachusetts for training. There Thomas meets a fellow Irish immigrant. They swap stories of their "coming over" experience on the boats, giving the reader a grim look at the reality of what families risked to get here for the chance at a new life. It is through this meeting that Thomas ponders on the realization of just how often Irish men were treated like total scum... until the Army needed soldiers for their causes.
The story is told in Thomas's first person perspective, but as an older man now retired and living in Tennessee, looking back on his wild youth. Said youth starts in Ireland, but (after he loses his entire family) soon brings him to the US as a teenage immigrant, eventually deciding to settle in Missouri. If you struggle with reading stories written in dialects, I warn you that this one is written in a kind of "country boy" voice that only gets stronger as your reading progresses. There's also a healthy dose of cursing -- some used just as a matter of speech, some as actual intended profanity in the situation.
Thomas also describes what it was like being a gay man -- his lover being his friend John -- in this era, with a penchant for cross dressing. Every so often we also get a glimpse of his sassiness, such as his thoughts on his short stature: "I'm a little man right enough but maybe the best dagger is a short one sometimes." (Meanwhile, John is 6'3.)
The plot didn't keep my attention all that well. There is something to Barry's writing that I could appreciate. The verbiage itself is solid enough, Thomas gives the reader a good laugh here and there, there are lots of pretty lines -- such as "our breath is flowing out like lonesome flowers that die on the air" -- but something was still lacking. I just didn't find myself emotionally committing to these characters, as far as their life stories go. What I do give points for are the themes / topics Barry leaves you to ponder on, such as racism of the era, the topic of immigration, or my favorite, the dichotomy that extends to exist within the Irish spirit. The sweetness vs. the hellfire. There's a whole passage on this that really rang true with me and had me nodding in recognition!