Within a few pages I was thinking that Maxwell was repeating certain themes until I realized this book is somewhat of a continuation of They Came Like Swallows. The story is Bunny's, but he is now a grown man so his childhood nickname is no longer referred to. It isn't the end of the world if these two books are read out of sequence but I consider myself lucky that it worked out well.
Two boys, at the very beginning of their teenage years, meet and play on the framework of a house under construction. Metaphorically teetering on the edge of potential danger without a care. Then one day Cletus Smith fails to show up, the boys never to play together again. The other boy, now a grown man, examines the events that scarred his childhood memories and sent a wave of suspicion and terror through Lincoln, Illinois in the early 1920s.
A pistol shot breaks the silence on a frosty morning. Lloyd Wilson, a tenant farmer, is found dead in the barn by his six year-old son.
'Who believes children. Brushing him and his story aside she ran to the barn. Wilson was sitting on a milking stool in the middle stall, his body sunk over against the partition. She caught him by the hand and cried, "Lloyd, what on earth is the matter with you?" - thinking he had been stricken with heart failure or possibly apoplexy. As the child had said, he was sitting there with his eyes open but he was dead.'
A situation has been brewing between two families resulting in a tragic conclusion. The ripple effect continues through extended family and the townspeople.
As in They Came Like Swallows this novella is succinct in words but epic in atmosphere. The images of rustic farmhouses, dusty fields, and work clothes damp with sweat are juxtaposed with the wealthy farm owners who stop by to inspect their tenant farmer's capabilities. The most powerful, and heartbreaking, observations are those of young Cletus. His hyper-alert behaviour with far too few of life's experiences to piece them together are confusing and keep him awake at night. The conversations that end abruptly when he enters a room or the appearance of aunts with faces full of sadness fill him with dread. Cletus also wonders why his father is no longer the best of friends with Lloyd Wilson.
Weaving old newspaper clippings with childhood memories, Morison comes to fully understand the nature of what exactly happened over the span of several months when he was just a boy. This resolution of events is followed by guilt. Should he have said more to his boyhood friend, lent support, made more of an effort to find Cletus when he suddenly disappeared?
Once again, this author has surpassed my expectations. His storytelling is perfectly paced and the moments of tension will have you holding your breath without realizing it. William Maxwell also seems to excel at making me cry. I'm about to order a copy of Time Will Darken It with the confidence it will be the third leg of a hat trick.
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