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.