The Boys Who Woke Up Early by A.D. Hopkins

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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

Imbrifex Books

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Gods of Howl Mountain: A Novel by Taylor Brown

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Granny sucked her teeth, wearing the sneer she always did when forced to come down off the mountain.

Outsiders aren’t welcome on this Howl Mountain, home to moonshiners, stock-car racing and  the wood witch Maybeline “Granny May” Docherty. She keeps her secrets as close as the mountain does, some darker than others. She can get rid of the troubles girls find themselves “carrying”, cure the sick, she knows the secrets of nature and some of the locals. Yet the biggest secret remains as locked up in her daughter Bonnie’s mind as she herself is, trapped in a mental institution after a violent attack.When her grandson is besotted by the snake-handling preacher’s daughter, no good can come of it. Granny knows plants and roots, makes tinctures and potions, she has knowledge that can make you reach spiritual realms, heal wounds, or kill but none of this could stop what happened to Rory’s mother. Old now, but still strong as an ox it’s hard sometimes to believe she ever knew tender love with Anson, the man who ‘made her blood sing hot.’ What happened to her world, what good was her wisdom, her love, when she couldn’t save Bonnie? Couldn’t right the wrongs?

There is a story that haunts Rory, about his mothers delicate hands and an eye, the Gaston killing and then nothing from her but silence thereafter. She, nothing but a whore’s daughter and the Gaston’s wanting her erased. With one foot in this world, and one in the other, his mother is of a nature he cannot understand. “Girl had angel in her blood,” Granny used to say. “Where she got it, I don’t know. Not from me.” Granny is grit, carved out of hard living, fierce. Rory knows many stories about the delicate nature of his mother, but it’s the story his mother can’t tell that he longs for.

This mountain knows violence, from frontiersmen and the civil war, to the mountain men and Cherokee spilling each other’s blood. The land seems to breed blood lust, and fight is vital to survival here. Rory has returned from war but is still carrying the terrible memories, and a wooden leg. He is hellbent on bootlegging but things have changed since he’s been away at war, and the Muldoons have gotten ‘tight’ with the sheriff. There is just as much danger home as there was in Korea. Younger men challenge him, and with a missing leg, being slow can be deadly in these mountains.

Bonnie’s story escapes like a sigh throughout the novel, in short chapters we come to know her and her first bloom of love. Rory is in love too, but his is like an infection. Then there is Eustace, Granny’s sometimes lover who came back from the war in France untouched, unlike her beloved Anson. Everyone is tangled up, somehow. Between dodging the law, rivaling bootleggers, and a preacher’s daughter who dangles snakes (and Rory’s heart) something rotten is going to boil over. It may well be those closest to you, the ones you trust, that you have to look out for. Secrets will raise like the dead, and there will be a reckoning.

The novel is atmospheric, the characters are so real that you can smell whiskey on their breath and the cloud of tobacco around them. It’s hard to feel tenderness and love, because they hold their affection close to their chest, just like their trust. Everything must be earned. I loved it for that very reason, they are hard because they have to be, but don’t imagine for a moment their love and loyalty isn’t as strong as the mountain they were bred from.

Available Now!

St. Martin’s Press