I sometimes blamed my name for the bad deeds of my youth.
1959, Jubal Early High School (Early, lying almost on the West Virginia line) Jack Newcomb walks in with a swagger, and before long becomes fast friends with Stony Shelor . When Stony isn’t avoiding trouble and juvenile court, he has fantasies about pretty country girl Mary Lou who just may teach him, and the town, more than he ever thought he needed to know about racism. Jack emulates TV characters from popular shows of the times, perfecting his swagger. Wearing a beret and sunglasses is about as foreign as a teenager could get around the hollers and Jack loves playing up his part, looking like a ‘jazz musician from a Peter Gun show’ (first detective tv series where the character was created for television). Soon, Jack convinces Stony they should each become a gumshoe themselves. First they need a licence to be detectives, but Jack figures it’s no problem, he has it all figured out already. He has researched! The boys find themselves hanging out at the Early County Sheriff’s Department learning police work and falling under the spell the power of asking questions provides. They help with a case when the Rich Conway’s (the district attorney) house is burglarized. Lacking the manpower, why not let the eager boys watch the place, rather than wasting the deputies time? If they can catch the criminal, they can make serious money! But a stolen television leads to bigger tangles, and the person they’ve fingered as guilty isn’t as cut and dry as that.
When the boys decide to bust a speakeasy and brothel, Stony further inflames a longstanding family feud between the Jepsons (moonshiners and poachers) and his own family, the Shelors. Like his grandfather once told his daughter-in law about their own ancestors “It won’t do to shake that family tree too hard,” he told her, “you might not like what falls out.” What family is without their dubious characters, whose to say or remember exactly what started the feud. Stony knows only that all the Jepsons fought like the devil and dropped out of school by the time they were sixteen. He remembers all too well the hell Buddy put on him in grade school.
Without giving the story away, it’s a coming of age during a time when racial tensions were on the rise, when the Ku Klux Klan were hidden sometimes in your own family and two boys playing at being grown men, thrilled by the power of police work sometimes learn that the difference between right and wrong, good and bad is thin. That love can incite all manner of shocking violence, and messing with the wrong boy can possibly cost you your very life. Will Stony be brave enough to support the girl he loves, in spite of the hatred in the eyes of the entire town? Will he ever be a real detective?
This reads so much like a memoir. That people freely used such inflammatory, racist language is the reality of the time and place. That sometimes we don’t understand how ugly the things we unquestioningly accept as normal are until we open our eyes is evident in the changes Stony goes through. That in looking for our own glory, we may bring the downfall of other innocent people and at a greater cost than we thought even to ourselves. It’s hard to admit even ignorance can be understood if you look at the root of it, fear. It’s nice to see brave female characters in a story about boys too, because Mary Lou has the strength of every man in this novel.
Publication Date: March 3, 2019