If you've ever looked at Grant Wood's American Gothic and wondered what creepy secret that couple might be hiding behind the drawn shade of the farmhouse's attic window, Bent Road is the book for you.
This tautly written, chilling piece of heartland noir is the first novel by Lori Roy, a Tierra Verde resident and alum of Eckerd College's Writers in Paradise program, and it's an impressive debut. Roy takes a bucolic setting — rural Kansas — and makes it an effective stage for a suspenseful tale of tragedy and dread.
The year is 1967. Arthur Scott left his family's farm 20 years before, for reasons he won't discuss, and has never even returned for a visit. He has made a good life in Detroit with his wife, Celia, and their three kids.
But the city's race riots set his nerves on edge, not to mention the phone calls his pretty teenage daughter, Elaine, is getting from "Negro boys." Against Celia's better judgment, they pack up Elaine and the other two kids and move back to a farm on Bent Road, near the home of Arthur's widowed mother, Reesa.
Just over the hill are Arthur's sister, Ruth, and her husband, Ray. And everywhere the family turns is the memory of Arthur's and Ruth's other sister, Eve, whose mysterious death just before her wedding seems to have had something to do with Arthur's flight decades before.
Upbeat Celia misses the city, but she concentrates on getting her kids settled. Elaine acquires a Dad-approved suitor in no time, but the younger ones struggle. Adolescent Daniel is sure he'll never make another friend, and 9-year-old Evie is unnerved by the disappearance, just after the Scotts move in, of Julianne Robison, a young girl in the nearest town.
That young girl looked a lot like long-gone Aunt Eve. And Evie herself is her aunt's spitting image — a fact that stokes the child's intense interest.
As weeks pass and Julianne remains missing, rumors fly about what might have happened to her and who might be responsible. There is no shortage of suspects. Ruth's husband, Ray, has a terrible temper and a disturbing way of looking at women's bodies. What's more, before he married Ruth, he was engaged to her sister, and gossip has long circulated that he might have been involved in Eve's death.
Another candidate is the perhaps legendary Jack Mayer, an escapee from the state insane asylum said to be roaming the area. Then there are the Bucher boys, a clan of brothers on a neighboring farm, whose idea of entertainment is decapitating kittens. The Buchers befriend Daniel and soon have him stealing weapons from his father's gun cabinet.
In the meantime, little Evie has discovered a trove of her dead aunt's belongings and is secretively dressing up in the frocks left behind 20 years ago and having conversations with her absent namesake.
"Secretive" is a key term in Bent Road. Roy, born and raised in the Midwest, fills her story with the sentimental trappings of farm life — ruffled aprons and cherry pies, old red pickups and roaming cows — but she also accurately draws a culture that is oppressively rigid and private to the point of paranoia.
These are the bad old days, when a woman who left her husband — even a husband everyone for miles around knew was a violently abusive drunk — could count on being publicly humiliated at Sunday Mass by the parish priest for not knowing her place. And families kept their business private until it festered like a wound.
Roy moves her story along through the points of view of two adults — Celia and Ruth — and the children, Daniel and Evie. Sometimes we see the same event through each one's eyes, ranging from innocent Evie to weary Ruth. At other times, Roy employs the multiple points of view to reveal or withhold key information and keep suspense ratcheted up.
Bent Road is rich in sensory details, from the feel of kneading dumpling dough to the color of a slaughtered cow's blood, that anchor the story in its place and time. Roy populates that world with a believable cast of characters, deftly marrying a story of domestic violence and familial love with a gothic mystery that is compelling at each turn of the page.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.