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Book Review: Perfect is Overrated by Karen Bergreen

Perfect is Overrated by Karen Bergreen (St. Martin’s Griffin; 308 pages; $14.99).

                Most authors do not know how to use humor in their storytelling.  Their attempts at comedy fall flat or come out all wrong.  Karen Bergreen, though, is not like those writers.

Bergreen is a stand-up comic who has appeared on Court TV, Comedy Central, Oxygen, and on Law & Order.  That is just her “second” career.  She is a former attorney who also clerked for a federal judge.  Bergreen is smack-dab in the midst of undertaking yet another vocation: author.  Her latest laugh-out-loud murder mystery is called Perfect is Overrated; she previously wrote Following Polly.    

                In Perfect is Overrated, Bergreen’s comedic timing is impeccably spot-on.  After the mother of one of her daughter’s preschool classmates is murdered, Kate Alger remembers meeting her for the first time.  The mothers and their daughters were sitting in a waiting area of the preschool’s admissions office.  Beverly offered her daughter, Bitsy, some hummus.  Molly, Kate’s daughter, thought the woman would offer her some, too.  “She’s not sick, is she?” Beverly asked, anxiously.  “Bitsy doesn’t like germs.”  Beverly made it clear to little Molly that the food was for Bitsy and she could not have any.  Kate instead offered Molly old saltine crackers from her purse.  Beverly was horrified, “Ooh, you do salt?”  Beverly then turned to Bitsy: “Bitsy, sweetie.  Mommy is going to help Bitsy out of her stroller.  And then Bitsy can give Mommy a kiss.  Mommy loves Bitsy.”  And then Bitsy threw up on Beverly.  “Molly took the second saltine out of its plastic wrap and handed it to the little girl.”  See what I mean?  Bergreen knows instinctively where to position humor in her storytelling.

But Perfect is Overrated is not all punch-lines and laughter.  Kate once had the perfect life.  She was an assistant district attorney who loved her job and was married to Paul, a gorgeous cop.  The couple was overjoyed to be expecting their first child.  Molly’s premature arrival and her touch-and-go first weeks of life irrevocably changed all that.  Kate developed postpartum depression, and nothing, not even Molly, could pull her from the black depths of despair.  Paul knew how to deal with perps but he had no clue how to handle an emotional and despondent wife.  They divorced.  He moved into an apartment right above his ex and their daughter.

Kate finally finds a cure for her postpartum blues when someone begins murdering the wealthy, snobby, seemingly perfect moms in Molly’s class.  Paul and Kate’s old boss are on the case.  Kate is hungry for information and launches her own investigation, which includes breaking into Paul’s computer and doing some snooping in her old boss’ office.  Kate gets more than she ever bargained for, though, when she discovers she could be next.

Because Bergreen knows the law, the plot to Perfect is Overrated is true to life.  She knows the ins and outs of police procedure and how to build a case against a perpetrator.  Because she also knows comedy, the story is funny, too.  Case in point:  when the killer is finally in police custody, the accused describes one of the murders.  “She answered the door in a stupid Chanel suit, which, I’m sorry, is so over.  Coco is dead, lady.  Buy de la Renta.”  I think I can honestly say that I have never read a funnier mystery.

Bergreen’s two careers, law and comedy, come together in this novel.  It’s a good marriage, one that I hope is long-lasting. May she never stray.

 

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Book Review: The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (Harper; 384 pages; $25.99).

            In 2004, African-American author Attica Locke and her husband attended the wedding of an interracial couple at Oak Alley Plantation.  Located in Vacherie, Louisiana, about fifty miles from New Orleans, the beautiful antebellum mansion provided the basis for the fictional “Twelve Oaks” in Gone with the Wind.  Locke and other wedding guests were bused in from New Orleans.  It wasn’t the ride, though, that made Locke uncomfortable.

            “You’re driving through rural, working-class Louisiana poverty,” she told NPR, “and all of a sudden, along the Mississippi, this incredibly majestic house, these beautiful grounds with these arching oak trees, just kind of rises up.  And I felt this tear inside — there’s no way to not feel the beauty of it because it is so stunning. But it also kind of made my stomach turn, because of what it represented.”

            Locke could not decide if having an interracial wedding on this plantation was an act of healing or if they were stomping on history.  She was so emotional she burst into tears.  The writer was certain the event was a metaphor “for where we are as a country, where we’re kind of caught between where we are and where we’re going.”

            Antebellum mansions like Oak Alley dot the Mississippi River Delta landscape of Louisiana and Mississippi.  Women in period dresses greet visitors at the door and guide them on a tour of the house and grounds.  Guests may imbibe in a little mint julep.  Visitors may even see a re-enactment or two.  Slave owners and slaves alike lament the coming of the Yankees.  The “happy darkies” profess their undying love and devotion to their masters.  In these plantations, the myth of “moonlight and magnolias,” long dispelled by historians, still prevails.

            Years later, when Barack Obama was elected President, the feeling she felt at Oak Alley came back to Locke.  The election “changed everything she had been taught about race.” 

This is the premise behind her latest mystery The Cutting Season, this reviewer’s second favorite mystery of the year (behind Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl).

            Swiftly-paced and compellingly readable, The Cutting Season features the thrilling tale of a double murder, centuries apart yet curiously related.  Locke’s whodunit takes the reader on a series of twists and turns.  The plot is unpredictable but always convincing. 

            Locke’s best feature is her ability to link characters to setting.  The story’s main protagonist, Caren, is the manager of fictional “Belle Vie” (“Beautiful Life”) Plantation.  Caren’s ties to Belle Vie are deep: her mother was the cook.  Caren grew up on this plantation.  In fact, she is the “great-great-great-granddaughter of slaves,” slaves who lived and worked at Belle Vie.    

            After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the home of Caren and her daughter, Morgan, they sought refuge at Belle Vie.  They have always felt safe here, among the re-enactors and others who work there.  They are a family.

            Their sense of security vanishes when the body of a cane worker from neighboring Groveland Corporation is discovered on plantation property.  She was murdered.  The killing may be related to the disappearance of Caren’s great-great-great-grandfather, Jason.

            Jason was brought to Belle Vie as a child.  Caren’s mother said that Jason “was a man to be proud of, slave or no slave.”  Jason was “a man who had lived with his head up and his back straight, a man who had lived a life of peace and fidelity…until he went mysteriously missing sometime after the Civil War.”  What happened to Jason was a mystery.  “Some said he had tired of cutting cane and walked out of the fields after the war, leaving a wife and child.  Some said he had problems with drink and women and that’s why he ran.  And still others, like Caren’s mother, thought he had likely met trouble here on the plantation; that he’d died at Belle Vie, and his soul never left the grounds.”  Jason’s ghost was even thought to haunt the slave quarters.

            Caren fears that she and her child may be the killer’s next targets.  Everyone is on edge; no one is safe.  No one can be trusted, not even old friends.  When it is clear the police have the wrong man, Caren must undertake her own investigation, no matter the cost. 

            In addition to the story’s main plot, the double murders, Locke introduces several interesting sub-plots.  Locke illustrates the plight of Hispanic cane workers and shows how powerless and scared they are when facing large companies, the government, and police.  An old romance between Caren and Eric, Morgan’s father, rekindles,  just when he is set to marry someone else.  Donovan, a re-enactor on the plantation, sets out to make a movie in which Jason is a central figure.

            The Cutting Season barely let this reviewer catch her breath.  I was so caught up in the action and mystery that I could not tear myself away from its pages.  The Cutting Season recalls the color and current of the muddy, meandering Mississippi River.  The story is swift; the plot is strong; the characters are murky; and the setting is shadowy. 

            The next time you find yourself near New Orleans or Baton Rouge, take a trip to the real Belle Vie– Oak Alley–the antebellum mansion that so moved Attica Locke. 

           

           

           

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Spotlight on Perfect is Overrated by Karen Bergreen

ImageHow do you spell funny?  K-A-R-E-N B-E-R-G-R-E-E-N! That’s Karen Bergreen, author of the slightly twisted but always hilarious new novel Perfect is Overrated.  

Bergreen is a former attorney and clerk for a federal judge.  Her readers are lucky she left all that behind to undertake a career as a stand-up comic.

She has appeared on Comedy Central, the Oxygen network, Court TV, and Law and Order.

Bergreen previously wrote Following Polly.

You can follow her on Twitter @KarenBergreen

The protagonist of Bergreen’s newest story, Kate Alger, a mom suffering from postpartum depression.  Before she gave birth to her daughter, Molly, Kate was an assistant DA. 

When someone starts killing all the snotty, pretentious, overzealous, alpha moms from Molly’s preschool, Kate finds reason to get up out of bed in the morning. 

Sometimes all it takes is a little murder…

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown; 432 pages; $25).

 

            “Let me set the scene,” to borrow a phrase from a character in Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl.  I normally do not read mysteries or thrillers; my exceptions are usually James Rollins and Steve Berry.  Most mysteries are not well-written, and I roll my eyes over what someone says or does.  I would rather read literature and fiction any day.  Another reason I stay away from mysteries is that I can usually guess the plot in the first few chapters.  Knowing what is coming simply takes the fun out of reading a so-called mystery.

I was reluctant to read Gone Girl, although I genuinely liked Flynn’s first novel Sharp Objects.  When I saw Gone Girl was about a wife who disappeared, my first thought was, “Hello, Scott Peterson.”  Been there, done that.  I was forgetting one crucial factor, however.  I had forgotten what a page-turner Flynn could produce and how nothing is simple in her world.

Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for exactly five years when Gone Girl begins.  In fact, the very day the book begins is their anniversary.  There will be no romantic candlelit dinners followed by an evening of dancing.  Amy disappears.  Not surprisingly, the police focus on Nick.

And Nick is all too aware of this fact: “Everyone knows it’s always the husband, so why can’t they just say it: We suspect you because you are the husband, and it’s always the husband.  Just watch Dateline.”

The reader has no choice but to suspect Nick, too.  He loved her once, deeply, but things have changed.  They both lost their jobs and relocated to Nick’s hometown from New York City when his mother became ill.  Money problems weigh heavily on them.  In short, they were having trouble and were far from being a happy couple.

When Nick thinks of his wife, oddly, he “always” thinks “of her head,” specifically the back of her head.  That does not bode well for Amy’s well-being, that’s for sure.

Yet Nick proclaims his innocence.  I was skeptical, especially when he reveals he has told the police five lies, all within the first few minutes of meeting with investigators.  His twin sister, Go (short for Margo), confirms that Nick would “lie, cheat, and steal” and even kill all “to convince people” he’s a good guy.  Nick, we soon learn, is an unreliable narrator.  Nothing he says can be trusted.  He has no qualms whatsoever about lying, and he’s good at it–so good it’s scary.

Flynn takes us on many twists and turns throughout this story that I literally could not put the book down nor could I catch my breath.  Gone Girl is a psychological thriller.  Just when you think Nick is the culprit, Flynn throws us a curve ball by introducing Diary Amy.  We meet Amy, but only through her diary entries.  Through her eyes, Nick becomes a deeply sinister figure.  But can we trust Diary Amy?

Amy loves “mind games” and creates a treasure hunt for Nick every year on their anniversary.  She gives him clues to follow.  Before Amy went missing, she wrote the clues for this year.  As Flynn shows us more and more of Amy’s diary entries, one cannot help but notice the different stories Nick and Amy are telling.  Amy may be unreliable, too; she may lie just as much as Nick does.  The dilemma is who to believe.  The trick is that both may be lying.

Amy is Flynn’s most intriguing character.  Her parents wrote a series of books for children which were quite popular in the 1980s called “Amazing Amy.”  The little girl in the books looked just like Amy; she was Amy, only better.  There was always a moral in each and usually taken from an actual instance in the real Amy’s life.  The real Amy did the opposite, though, of what “Amazing Amy” did.  Her parents, thought real Amy, did it to teach her a lesson.

Kids loved to read the stories.  So did a few freaks, like a girl Amy knew in school who began dressing and even acting like Amy.  She went so far as to push Amy down the stairs.  Then, there was the guy Amy dated who took their breakup so hard he tried to commit suicide.  Nick goes on the offensive and tracks them down, insisting he did not hurt her.  He criticizes the authorities for not going after the real culprit.  Nick swears, despite evidence to the contrary, that he is innocent.

Yet, despite his protestations, all signs point to Nick, especially after the police find blood (and a lot of it!) in the kitchen.    And why does Nick keep seeing Amy bleeding anyway?  As Flynn writes, “I saw my wife, blood clotting her blond hair, weeping and blind in pain, scraping herself along our kitchen floor.”  He hears her call his name: “Nick, Nick, Nick!”  Might he be playing back the crime in his mind?

Just when you think you have it all figured out, Flynn introduces something else into the mix.  This is a who-done-it that really keeps you guessing, right up until the last page.  That’s what makes Gone Girl worth reading and what makes it so darn good.  I do not remember ever reading a thriller with so many plot twists and revelations.  After I finished, I wanted to immediately read it again to see what I had missed.

Amy was once a writer of personality quizzes for magazines.  To end this review, I am going to borrow something from her yet again.  After finishing Gone Girl and loving it, you:

A)  Tweet about it to your followers—hey, it’s the least you can do.

B)  Rate the book on Goodreads and even recommend it to your friends there—hey, they would like it, too.

C)  Write a glowing critical review of the novel—hey, it’s just that good!

D)  All of the above.

I know which choice I would pick.  I have a hunch that, after you read it, you’d give the same answer as I.  Gone Girl is Flynn’s best work.  Everyone needs a good mystery, and I challenge you to find a better one.  I know from experience that it isn’t easy!

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Miracles and Mirages

Miracles and Mirages

A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash (William Morrow; 320 pages; $24.99).

 

Charles Manson.  Jim Jones.  David Koresh.  Carson Chambliss.  That last name may not be as familiar to you as the other names of famous and frighteningly real cult leaders are.  Chambliss, the fictitious pastor of the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following, runs a small backwoods congregation in rural North Carolina in Wiley Cash’s powerful, taut debut novel A Land More Kind than Home.  Like Manson, Jones, and Koresh, Chambliss’s followers will do absolutely anything for him; Chambliss’s congregation speak in tongues, handle snakes, and even kill for their leader.

Not everyone is drinking Chambliss’s kool-aid, though.  Adelaide “Addie” Lyle, former church member, mid-wife, and one of the narrators of Cash’s novel, knows all too well just what her ex-pastor is capable of.  Addie has seen people “pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them.  Holy people too.  God-fearing folks that hadn’t ever acted like that a day in their lives.”  Chambliss, Addie says, convinces them that it is “safe to challenge the will of God” and makes them feel it is “all right to take that dare if they” believe.

An incident that occurred years previously prompted Addie to take the children out of the church and teach them at her home instead every Sunday.  Curiously, Chambliss agreed to this.  Since she birthed these children, Addie feels like she has a right to their spirits.  Cash employs streams of consciousness to get the reader inside Addie’s head.  The effect is compelling and highly readable.  But Addie is not alone in her distrust of her ex-pastor.

Sheriff Clem Barefield, another narrator, knows Chambliss is a man of secrets and lies.  One of the pastor’s hands is severely burned.  The sheriff knows the damage occurred from a meth lab explosion that not only injured the pastor but also killed a missing girl.   Chambliss required extensive skin grafts, but his hand is severely disfigured.  Chambliss, of course, explains that it was “God’s will.”

The skin grafts help explain Chambliss’ fascination, or rather obsession, with snakes.  The rattles and shed skins of serpents adorn Chambliss’s barn in a frightening fashion.  Chambliss collects them and likes to think the skins “remind us that we can change into something new.”  Sheriff Barefield explains the pastor’s interest best, as snakes “shed skin, men shed skin.”  Skin “grows back” in some cases, but “sometimes it gets grafted on,” as in the case of Chambliss.

The sheriff has more pressing concerns than snakes, though.  Nine-year-old Jess Hall is Cash’s third and final narrator.  His brother, Stump, is mute and has been since birth.  The boys’ mother attends Chambliss’s church and is a loyal follower.  But the boys’ father is no fan of the pastor or of religion.

The boys see something they are not supposed to see.  Their transgression puts Stump particularly on Chambliss’s radar.  The pastor calls Stump to services and believes he can “cure” the boy of his affliction.  So do the congregation and Stump’s mother.

Cash’s characters have little or no education.  Some can be unapologetically ignorant but always real.  Their lack of intelligence makes them highly susceptible to a man like Chambliss.  Those who attend the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following are easily led.  They believe everything Chambliss tells them, and they blindly follow his orders, whatever they may be.

Cash sets his story in his home state of North Carolina.  He peoples his book with backwoods types, hillbillies even.  There is an authenticity to his characters.  Cash peppers his prose with “reckons,” “ain’ts,” and “fixin’ to’s.”  He writes them as they really are, and the story is better because of it.  His characters believe in tobacco, hard work, God, and Chambliss, but not necessarily in that order.  The atmospheric quality to his writing brings to mind Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, and Cormac McCarthy.

A Land More Kind than Home is filled with tension.  Chambliss is not a narrator of the story, yet, in my mind, he stands out.  He is all the more menacing and dangerous when he stands on the periphery of this tale.  Cash never lets us inside his head; instead, Chambliss and his true intentions are unknowable.  This reader was drawn to Chambliss’s character; he is mesmerizing.

There is an inevitability to this tale.  From as early as page one, the reader knows things will not end well.  The beauty is seeing where Cash will take his characters and us.

Most beautiful of all, though, is when Jess warns us that miracles are often like mirages in the desert: “I thought about what a mirage must look like in the desert after you’ve gotten yourself lost and you ain’t had nothing to drink and are just about ready to die.  I reckon at that point your mind can trick you into seeing just about anything it wants you to see.”  Too bad most of the adults in this novel are not as sage as this nine-year-old boy.

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Saving Grace

Saving Grace

 The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Reagan Arthur Books; 288 pages; $24.99).

The sea can be unforgiving, mysterious, dangerous, and even brutal.  The ocean can cool and renew us, yet it also has the power to kill.  The water may look inviting, but that same liquid can be deceiving.  Curiously, the sea can be a metaphor for life.  Sometimes it’s sink or swim.  Sometimes we must dogpaddle to stay afloat.  Sometimes we are in danger of going under.

 

Sometimes we must make horrible choices in order to survive.  Such is the case in Charlotte Rogan’s gripping debut The Lifeboat.  The phrase “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” never rang truer.  Rogan’s main character, Grace Winter, despite her faults, is one of the strongest female characters I have encountered in a long time.

 

Grace manages to live through an excruciating ordeal, one in which many die.  The Lifeboat is chilling as Grace and others must struggle and sacrifice in order to survive.

When Rogan introduces us to Grace, she is widow on trial, along with two other women, for murder.  Her lawyers urge Grace to write an account of what occurred.  She reluctantly agrees and begins a diary.  Her narrative is the basis for Rogan’s story.

 

While crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1914, there is an explosion on board the Empress Alexandra.  People shove others out of the way to get on lifeboats.  Grace’s new husband, Henry, forces her onto Lifeboat 14, but he does not follow.   Rogan draws eerily similar comparisons to Titanic, yet this is no love story.  Far from it.

 

Grace recalls, “There were bodies floating in the water, too, and living people clung to the wreckage….”  A toddler reaches out to her, but neither Grace nor any of the others save the child.  This is the first instance where the reader notices how cold and calculating Grace really is.  There is a detachment to her.  Perhaps it is her lack of emotion that helps her survive.

 

Many people are alive in the water.  Three swimmers approach the boat.  On the orders of an officer from the ship, Mr. Hardie, the oarsmen beat the men to death with the oars.  It is truly every man for himself.  The simple, hard fact is that “we could not save everybody and save ourselves.”

 

Mr. Hardie emerges as leader.  This makes sense given he knows the water.  Grace has confidence in his abilities.  In her eyes, Mr. Hardie “knew about this world of water” and “spoke its language.”  The less she understands his “rough seaman’s voice,” “the greater the possibility” that the sea understands him.  Out of necessity, Mr. Hardie makes some tough decisions.  Grace, though, perseveres in her support for him, or at least at first.

 

Because the boat is taking on water, it, in all likelihood, will sink.  The lifeboat supposedly has a capacity of 39 people and holds 38.  In actuality, the lifeboat is capable of holding much less than 39 people.

 

The lifeboat is overcrowded, a fact that is obvious to everyone.  Mr. Hardie asks for volunteers.  Several men and women jump out and into the sea to their deaths.  Soon, Mr. Hardie’s actions are questioned, especially by two women, Mrs. Grant and Hannah.  Mrs. Grant is appalled when Mr. Hardie does not turn back for the child.  She calls him a brute.  Just like that, Grace explains, “Mrs. Grant was branded a humanitarian and Hardie a fiend.”

 

A power struggle unfolds as food and water, necessities for survival, are hard to come by.  Grace’s allegiance to Mr. Hardie teeters.  It becomes obvious that she will support whoever suits her needs best.  She will cheer whoever has the advantage.  Clearly, Grace is interested only in saving herself.

 

The situation on the lifeboat grows bleaker.  At one point, a flock of birds falls dead into the lifeboat.  Both men and women eat the birds and gnaw the bones until they are bare of meat.  Blood runs down their chins.  Such a thing is implausible to me.  I wonder if this might be a veiled reference to cannibalism.  Perhaps the reality of the situation is such that Grace is unwilling and unable to call it what it truly is.

 

You just cannot trust Grace; she is definitely an unreliable narrator.  She often tells half-truths and even lies.  “It’s my experience that we can come up with five reasons why something happened, and the truth will always be the sixth,” she confides.  If this is part of her nature or if it is a result of the tragedy, Rogan chooses not to reveal.  It is through the eyes of the other survivors that Grace comes across as callous and manipulative.  Her cold and calculating nature is nothing new, however, as Rogan reveals.  Grace used these same tactics to lure her husband from another woman.  If you guess he came from money, you are correct.

Rogan plays with Grace’s memory and history in this novel.  When the others discount a memory on the stand, she emphatically denies what they say.  Grace’s memory and history are at odds.  Grace also retreats into herself on the lifeboat.  She withdraws into her own mind to what she calls the “Winter Palace.”  Her retreat may partly explain why she has no recollection of certain events.  Then again, maybe it is her plan all along.  One thing is certain, though: over time, the situation on the lifeboat grows more tenuous and more perilous.

 

The power struggle between Mr. Hardie and Mrs. Grant and Hannah comes to a head.  Grace plays a major role in this battle, which is the reason she is on trial.  Rogan writes this with suspense.

 

It is interesting that three women are on trial.  If circumstances had been different, I do not feel Mr. Hardie would be accused of murder.  It is as if, in 1914 at least, a woman’s place was to create, sustain, and nurture life.  Not take it.  People expect a man to fight, even defend himself if the scenario demands.  Why shouldn’t the same be true for a woman?

 

A lifeboat takes on ironic meanings in Rogan’s novel.  Lifeboats are lifesaving vessels.  They are places of refuge and salvation.  In this book, though, the lifeboat takes on a whole different sense.  It becomes a deathtrap.

 

I recommend The Lifeboat to anyone who is fascinated with Titanic.  I also would suggest the novel for those who enjoy Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  I do want to warn you that there is no romance, no magic here.  The Lifeboat is sometimes bloody, sometimes chilling, and always shocking.  It will literally give you goosebumps.

 

More than anything, Grace Winter is a survivor, and you must respect her for having the will to save herself.  Grace never gives up.  Whether you are at sea or navigating the shark-infested waters of life, Grace can teach us all something.  Sometimes we all have to struggle in order to get through this life.

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Money Talks, We Listen

Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden (Akashic Books; 250 pages; $15.95).

In her seventh novel, Gathering of Waters, author Bernice L. McFadden skillfully combines history with folklore and magical realism.  She also re-imagines the 1955 brutal murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi.  What results is a breathtaking literary masterpiece of epic proportions.

Gathering of Waters is notable because Ms. McFadden does something in her book that is not often done.  She tells her story from the point of view of the town of Money, Mississippi.  Money sees all; Money knows all.  Money is everywhere.   “I am Money.  Money Mississippi.  I have been figments of imaginations, shadows and sudden movements seen out of the corner of your eye.  I have been dewdrops, falling stars, silence, flowers, and snails.”   I cannot remember the last novel I read in which the narrator was not a person but a place.  This is such a unique and fresh method of storytelling in a time when the first person plural (“we”) has become increasingly popular.

Ms. McFadden turns Money into a character.  Her use of personification, attributing human characteristics to non-living things, is near divine.  For instance, Money feels pain and has a memory, “For a time I lived as a beating heart, another life found me swimming upstream toward a home nestled in my memory.  Once I was a language that died.  I have been sunlight, snowdrifts, and sweet babies’ breath.”

Money also is an abundance of knowledge for us and explains Ms. McFadden’s title: “You know, before white men came with their smiles, Bibles, guns, and disease, this place that I am was inhabited by Native men.  Choctaw Indians.  It was the Choctaw who gave the state its name: Mississippi—which means many gathering of waters.”

Money is particularly interested in one of the families who lives within its confines.  Money tells us: “Admittedly, I am guilty of a very long and desperate fascination with a family that I followed for decades.  In hindsight, I believe that I was drawn to the beautifully tragic heartbrokenness of their lives, and so for years remained with them, helplessly tethered, like a mare to a post.”  That family is the Hilson family: Reverend August, his wife Doll, and their children, Hemmingway and Paris.

An evil spirit inhabits the body of Doll Hilson.  Her name is Esther, and she was once a prostitute who now goes from host to host.  Money explains that “when objects are destroyed and bodies perish, the souls flit off in search of a new home.”  Esther does just that; she comes into Doll’s soul at the moment of her birth.  Doll’s mother, Coraline, remembers: “You come into this world screaming holy murder, and didn’t stop until you were a month old.  Like to drive me outta my mind.  It was your daddy–God rest his soul–who stopped me from throwing you down the well.”  Doll responds, in Esther’s voice, “Maybe you the one shoulda gone down the well.”  Not even death stops Esther.  When Doll dies, she simply finds another human to torment.  This demon destroys the lives of three generations of women in the Hilson family.

Esther also causes the brutal slaying of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till when she enters the body of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Roy Bryant.  These two men beat the teen, who was from Chicago and vacationing in the area, to death for supposedly whistling at Bryant’s wife.  Please do not think Ms. McFadden is trivializing Till’s murder; she is not.  She is not trying to explain it away either.  Ms. McFadden puts her own spin on it, which is what fiction writers must do.

Gathering of Waters also features two disasters that caused massive devastation and loss of life in Mississippi, this place where many waters converge: the 1927 flood and Hurricane Katrina.  Money describes how in April of 1927 “most folk in Mississippi couldn’t think of anything but rain, mud, mosquitoes, and flooding.”  Conditions worsen quickly.  Money is overrun by the waters of the Mississippi when the levees give way: Bodies are everywhere; some float, some are caught in trees.  Ms. McFadden brings this horrible natural disaster to life.

But she does not stop there.  When Gathering of Waters ends in 2005, Mississippi braces for another calamity, and she is named Katrina.  Money sounds angry when it talks about the storm: “In the Gulf of Mexico, she suddenly turned furious.  Draped in black clouds, blowing wind, and driving rain, she charged into Louisiana like a bull and fanned her billowing dark skirts over Mississippi.”  Guess who Money believes Katrina is?  If you guess Esther, you are correct.  “They named her Katrina,” Money scoffs, “but I looked into the eye of that storm and recognized her for who she really was: Esther…cackling and clapping her hands with glee.”

At the end of Ms. McFadden’s novel, Money warns, “As you go about your lives, keep in mind that an evil act can ruin generations….”  Yet, take heart, for “gestures of love and kindness will survive and thrive forever.”  When Money talks, we should listen.

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