Book Reviews: Notown by Tess Collins and The Widows of Braxton County by Jess McConkey

NotownNotown
Book One: The Midnight Valley Quartet
Tess Collins
BearCat Press, May 2013
ISBN 978-1-937356-31-6
Hardcover

The Notown of the story is a nowhere kind of place, a coal mining town set in Kentucky’s Cumberland Mountains. The heroine of the story is a no-good kind of girl, a product of her times in the 1960’s, at least in this particular place. Randi Joe Gaylor’s daddy is a coal miner who, although not always successful, works hard to feed his many children. Her mother is something else, a woman of secrets. But Randi Jo slowly discovers the whole family has secrets, some more gruesome than others, some because once again, these people live in this time and in this place. Murder and betrayal are a part of their history, as well as the history of the people they know. And if you’re born a Notowner, as Randi Jo finds out, you are always a Notowner. There doesn’t seem to be any way out.

Notown is a crime story, although it’s not a mystery. The people, even Randi Jo, as we follow her life from the time she’s a little girl, to young love, marriage and motherhood, to her final degradation and redemption, seems to personify a class of people. Who says America doesn’t have a class system? In Notown it throve, sad and joyless.

Once into the story, the writing is riveting, faithfully reflecting Randi Jo’s voice. Hard reading, at times, because the emotion can only be taken in smaller doses. I think it might be overwhelming in one fell swoop, needing time to be assimilated. Notown is excellent and is sure to make you think about the world and the people in it.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2013.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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The Widows of Braxton CountyThe Widows of Braxton County
Jess McConkey
William Morrow, July 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-218826-7
Trade Paperback

Kate Krause was a very happy bride as she traveled with her husband, Joe, to her new home in Braxton County, Iowa.  Kate and Joe met online but Kate felt that they were just right for each other.  Kate’s widowed mother had passed away and her grandparents raised Kate. Her grandmother complained endlessly and Kate’s life was not a happy one.

When the new couple arrived at Joe’s farm, a woman that Kate first mistook for a housekeeper met Joe and Kate at the door.  The woman was Trudy Krause, Joe’s mother.   Joe explained that he didn’t tell Kate about Trudy because Trudy was to have moved to a retirement home prior to the couple’s homecoming but there was some problems at the home and her room would not be ready for weeks.

Kate soon found that life was not going to be as she pictured it.  The farm was in bad financial shape and Kate’s savings were used to pay some of the debts but it wasn’t enough.   Joe would not agree to let Kate help him with the management of the farm even though Kate had proven to be an excellent money manager.  Plans for Trudy’s move to a retirement home did not materialize.

As Kate became acquainted with the neighborhood, she finds that the Krause family harbors a long kept secret about a mysterious death.   This secret haunts Kate as dangerous, unexplainable events begin.

A Krause family member, but not one that Joe associates with, owns the local hardware store.   Joe warns Kate not to shop at that store.  Kate ignores his wishes, makes friends with the owner of the store, and finds out a little more about the mysterious past and haunting secret of the Krause family.

The book goes back and forth between present day and the past where the Krause mystery began.  I found this book to be very interesting and I could not wait to get to the end but when I did, I wished the book were longer.

Jess McConkey a/k/a Shirley Damsgaard is an award-winning writer.  Love Lies Bleeding was the first book I read by the author Jess McConkey and it was a good read.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, September 2013.

Book Review: To the Bright and Shining Sun by James Lee Burke

To the Bright and Shining Sun
James Lee Burke
Hyperion, October 2000.
Originally published by Scribner’s, 1970.
9780786889686
Mass Market

For a moment he thought of forgetting the bus depot. He had almost fifty dollars in his wallet, and that would be enough until he could find some type of job. […] There was no work at all now back on the plateau, and his family would be better off if he stayed in the city and sent them part of his paycheck. There would be no J.W.’s to worry about, no long evenings in the cabin while his mother stared blankly at the fire, and no more quiet hatred or that anticipation of sudden violence when he stood next to a scab or a company man on a street corner.

The post-World War II economic boom, with the expansion in manufacturing fueled by increased consumer demand, should have been good for the coalfields of Appalachia. Instead, the social and economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression was prolonged by violent, protracted conflicts between union organizers and mine companies determined to keep the unions out and scrape every last cent of profit out of the region. This desperate poverty and equally desperate violence is the world in which Perry Woodson Hatfield James comes of age in James Lee Burke’s To the Bright and Shining Sun.

At the outset of the novel, Perry, scarcely sixteen years old, seems trapped in a never-ending cycle of futility and inevitability. Because of an injury his father suffered in a mining accident, Perry is the only member of his family fit to work regularly. Unfortunately, work, when it can be found, is degrading, dangerous, and does not pay enough to support a single person much less an entire family, not even in the eastern Kentucky hollow where Perry lives. Despite the promises of union benefits and wages, mechanization is eliminating hundreds of jobs in the big mines. To keep the unions out, mine operators either shut down or trucked in scabs from out of state. There might be work for a small operator, but those jobs offered with no benefits, hazardous conditions, “and the little money he made wouldn’t pay the charge at the store at the end of the month.” The only alternatives were to make moonshine for the Detroit syndicate or work for the Forest Service government keeping trails clear – jobs generally reserved for survivors, like Perry’s father, of mining accidents.

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