Bradbury’s most well-known works . . . were so successful precisely because they dealt with images in the mind, the stuff of poetry, says Professor Slusser. “He is the last of the great American writers who evoke that kind of Midwestern American world,” he says, artists that include other American greats such as painter Edward Hopper and novelist Willa Cather.
From The Christian Science Monitor,"Ray Bradbury, a passionate sci-fi writer with the gifts of a painter," June 6, 2012
When I read the above tribute to Ray Bradbury I thought of Lori Roy's debut novel, Bent Road, which I recently read. It beautifully evokes the starkness and beauty of the rural Midwest of the late 1960s. I've been re-reading the novels of Willa Cather this year and while I was reading Bent Road I thought that Roy has the potential to be a modern day heir to Cather and her ability to depict the rural Midwest and its people. There are also shades of In Cold Blood and To Kill A Mockingbird.
Bent Road won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. It has a gritty, almost gothic atmosphere, and characters that I almost immediately cared about. I struggled between wanting to devour the novel for the plot and slowing down to savor Roy's masterful writing. She conveys so much with so little that I got the chills a few times.
If you've driven the back roads in the rural Midwest, particularly in the Plains States, you can easily picture the setting for this novel. Roy's writing makes you feel the flat openness of the land, how houses stick out, particularly in winter, like either beacons of warm safety or like cages where people are trapped like sitting ducks. From early on in the story there's a lurking sense of isolation and vulnerability underneath the surface solidity of rural homes.
Bent Road takes place in 1967. It's the tale of Arthur Scott and his family. Arthur is a white man who left his home state of Kansas twenty five years ago. He's now married, with three kids, and living in Detroit. Racial unrest is heating up and Arthur is upset by black boys calling his house and asking for his teenage daughter. The violence didn’t chase him away, but the prospect of interracial dating is the final straw. He moves his family from Detroit back to his home in rural Kansas on Bent Road.
From the opening scene, Bent Road is a dangerous road where things don’t always seem like what they are, and any level of imagination, overactive or not, can take the mind places, sometimes to fear, sometimes to fantasy. Here's a scene from early on in the novel. Evie is the youngest child in the family. She's just spend the last two days with her older brother in the car that her mother drove from Detroit to Kansas. Her father and sister drove ahead of them in a pickup truck. They're just about at their destination.
This isn't at all what Evie thought Kansas would look like. Mama said it would be flat and covered with yellow wheat. She tosses her arms over the front seat and stands on the floorboard for a better look. At the top of the hill, a fence follows the gentle curve of the road like a giant lazy tail draped across the field. The tumbleweeds, hundreds of them, thousands maybe, snagged up by the barbed wire, look like a monster's arching spine (7).
What I admire about this short paragraph is how much it says about Evie. She's not a sit back kind of kid and she has a great imagination. She's also starting to see the gulf between what her Mom says and what she sees with her own eyes. And the time period is obviously a few decades back: the car is roomy, the seats large enough for a child (or two) to comfortably stand and hang over the front seat. It harkens back to another time when kids were free to roam around the back of the car without seat belts. The lack of seat belts amps up the tension of the scene for readers who grew up with seat belts being a mandatory.
Contrast Evie's younger, narrower world view with her old brother, Daniel's awareness of the social, political, and personal changes his family is experiencing and how stuck he feels about it all. In the scene below Daniel is in a field across the road from his house with his friend Ian who is teaching him to hunt prairie dogs. They see a big black sedan drive over the hill and Ian asks if that's Father Flannery. Daniel says yes and asks how he knows who it is, to which Ian replies that everyone knows he was coming over today.
"Everyone knows everything," Ian says, "Everyone knows everything about everybody." You can hear the grumbling, discontent and frustration of Daniel's thoughts when he thinks:
In Detroit, nobody knew anything about anybody. They were too busy worrying about the Negroes who wanted to work side by side with the white people. They were too busy worrying about the color of their neighborhood and kids who couldn't play outside anymore. Nobody had time to care about someone like Father Flannery or why he was visiting on a Saturday afternoon. People in Kansas have nothing but time. That's what Mama says whenever Grandma Reese shows up without an invitation (86).
There are so many cues in this short paragraph. How frustrated Daniel is with his life from his time in Detroit and now. He's having to adjust to new social expectations and is literally seeing what his mother means with her statements about time. And there's a nod towards Daniel thinking his parents are too busy to pay attention to him like he needs them to. There's also the irony that adults worried so much about "Negroes" in Detroit, yet in Kansas they have no idea that their young son is across the street playing with a loaded weapon.
His parents, meanwhile, are adjusting to their new life as well. The only one not having much of a hard time is the eldest daughter who almost immediately finds a boyfriend. Then a young girl disappears which causes great stress for the parents. Celia is Arthur's wife:
While Celia tries to rein in her anger and frustration since Julianne disappeared, Arthur has unleashed his. His temper explodes without warning as if he thinks Julianne must have been careless, irresponsible, and that these two things led to her disappearance. He won't have the same happen to his children (52).
The tension in the story at that point makes you wonder if Arthur is going to snap. His sister was murdered twenty five years ago and it was shortly after that when Arthur left Kansas. Now he returns and a young girl goes missing.
I could go on and on, but don't want to risk giving any spoilers, so I'll just say Bent Road is a great read and I'll stop talking about it.
ENTER TO WIN A COPY OF BENT ROAD!
I am thrilled to offer Bent Road as the first giveaway that I'm running on WildmooBooks.
How to enter: simply leave a comment below to be entered to win one of two free copies courtesy of Plume/Penguin. Contest ends at midnight (CST) on July 18, 2012. Winners will be chosen randomly and contacted by me on July 19, 2012. Winners will have to provide me with a mailing address that I'll forward to the publisher who'll send the book directly to you. U.S. addresses only. Winners will have 48 hours to acknowledge their prize, after that the book will be offered to another randomly chosen winner.