The summer of 1972 was the most pivotal of Matt Plumley’s childhood. While his beloved Pirates battle for back-to-back World Series titles, Matt’s family moves from Pittsburgh to Dogwood, West Virginia, where his father steps into the pulpit of a church under the thumb of town leader Basil Blackwood. A fish out of water, Matt is relieved to forge a fast bond with two unlikely friends: Dickie Darrel Lee Hancock, a mixed-race boy, and Jesse Woods, a tough-as-nails girl with a sister on her hip and no dad in sight.
As the trio traipses the hills and hollers, Matt begins to fall for Jesse, and their promises to each other draw him deeper into her terrifying reality. One night, the wrath of the Blackwoods and the secrets of Jesse’s family collide, and Matt joins Jesse in a rescue that saves one life and ends another . . . and severs the bond of their friendship.
Years later, Matt is pulled back to Dogwood and to memories of that momentous summer by news of Jesse’s upcoming wedding. He could never shake the feeling that there was more to the story of that fateful night, and he’s determined to learn the truth behind the only promise Jesse Woods ever broke.
“A girl I fell in love with is about to make a big mistake. She’s getting married. And I’m not sure whether to walk away or do something.”
“You’ve been away a long time, Matt. Why did you wait?”
“Because I didn’t know how strongly I felt, I guess. And I feel guilty for something that happened. That made her reject me.”
“Guilty about what?”
“It’s a long story. But I was responsible for someone’s death twelve years ago.”
“That’s a huge weight to carry. Have you talked with her?”
I nodded. “She’s made up her mind. But the guy she’s marrying . . . could be a problem.”
“The jury’s still out.”
He put a hand over his mouth and studied me. “Are you sure this situation with the girl is really why you came back?”
Mr. Lambert was a teacher kids went to in high school about relationships. He talked a number of lonely hearts down from the ledge during his tenure. But his words clanged against my heart.
“Yeah, I got the call and got in the car and rove through the night. Why else would I be here?”
“I’m just not sure it’s all about her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me say this.” He waved a hand. “I could be totally off-base. Maybe it’s the chemo talking. Chalk it up to that if this is out of left field. ‘A fragment of an underdone potato,’ right? But it sounds to me like you’ve come to a crossroads. I think you’ve come back to rescue someone. I don’t doubt that. The only question is, who?”
“The girl,” I said.
He looked away and pursed his lips in thought. “Have you considered that your trip might be less about romance and more about what’s going on inside you? At the soul level?” He tapped my chest with three fingers. “Focus on what’s going on in there. You’ll make a good decision.”
This was such an absorbing story! And to think I actually deliberated over whether to request it for review! When you pick up this book (and you really want to, believe me) make sure you have a few hours to yourself to read it, because you won’t want to put it down.
To begin with, the writing in this novel is superb. It has vitality, a fantastic use of imagery, and a wonderful way of capturing the essence of a character or a situation with one or two well-chosen, and often pithy, observations. And some of those observations prompted sudden outbursts of laughter from me – so beware if you are reading in public. You may get some funny looks!
The story is narrated in the first person from the point of view of Matt Plumley, and alternates seamlessly between Matt’s return to Dogwood in the present (1984, for the purposes of this novel) and the year that Matt and his parents moved from Pittsburgh to Dogwood when he was 14 (the year 1972). Matt strikes up a friendship with Jesse and Dickie the day he arrives in Dogwood, but their friendship is tested from the beginning by the differences in their circumstances. In Matt’s own words, Dickie’s mixed-race ancestry was ‘a knapsack full of rocks on his forced march through his childhood’, and Jesse’s situation is one of utter poverty unlike Matt has ever known.
Despite Jesse and Dickie’s status as outcasts, they become Matt’s closest friends in those early weeks, and part of the beauty of this story is the way in which moments of light-heartedness – of childhood innocence and idyll – float to the surface of waters muddied by the harsher realities of Jesse and Dickie’s lives. Then one night, with Dickie snoring ‘like a chainsaw with the croup’ in the background, Matt and Jesse exchange secrets and a promise. Unfortunately, some secrets are just too big to be contained.
In the present, Matt returns to Dogwood to find it’s not so easy to talk to Jesse, and everyone, Jesse included, thinks it would be better if he just returned to Chicago and left the past in the past. And when he gets an emergency call to return to Chicago, he begins to think perhaps that would be best after all.
There was something really mesmerizing about this story. I was thoroughly immersed in the events taking place at whatever point I was reading, but at the same time, I could feel both the past and the present story lines building, piece by piece, drawing me like a magnet towards two climaxes that I knew I would not be able to fully predict. And even if you do venture to predict them, I can guarantee you will be second guessing yourself all the way to the end.
If you’re like me, you will likely have a mixture of emotions when the novel concludes. There is a sense in which I felt like this story closed just as another was ready to begin, but then that, too, is part of the magic of this story, and perhaps all our stories in a way. In any case, this is fabulous read – in some ways reminiscent of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and in others, a story all its own.
I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for my honest review.
Release date: 1 July 2016
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Author’s website: http://www.chrisfabry.com/