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by Julia Keller
Minotaur, August 2016
268 pages
ISBN: 1250089581

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Julia Keller's heart is in the right place. Good murder mysteries thrive on place; they exhale the names of places; they linger in the streets, houses, bars, and shops. And Julia Keller tries, she really tries, to place us in rural, proud, impoverished West Virginia. However, someone just has to tell her, not everyone has a complex. And furthermore, some sentences need to be normal, not breathless.

SORROW ROAD follows three boys who knew one another as barely teens, as young enlisted men in World War II, and as old men near the ends of their lives.

Dramatis personae: Belfa Elkins, prosecuting attorney, Raythune County, West Virginia; her ex, a social-climber who ran off to Washington, D.C.; their daughter, who has—issues; Darlene Strayer, acquaintance of Belfa's from law school, who believes that her elderly father has been murdered in a nearby Alzheimer's care facility, but not for long; Bill Ferris, Alzheimer's patient who abused his children and does not remember doing so; Janie and Nelson, the abused children, now grown; Vic Plumley, one of the boys, whose father, Frank, is rich and despises his son, and whose mother, Vivian, is the local lush and good-time girl; Harmon Strayer, one of the boys who, in his old age, succumbs, not to Alzheimer's, but to something else; Alvie Sherrill, whose Baptist preacher father must leave the church because of something—irregular—that has happened when he was alone with a young female parishioner; Alvie's be-zitted, slow-witted son Leonard, whom Alvie despises; a pickup truck, driven by three underage boys, that becomes a weapon used in a crime.

Belfa Elkins visits with a prickly acquaintance from law school. They have grown apart over the years of their adulthood, but Darlene, the friend, is insistent that they meet. Darlene believes that her father, Harmon Strayer, might have been killed at Thornapple Terrace, a facility where Alzheimer's patients receive long-term care. Belfa feels that her friend is overstating her case until the next morning, she learns that her friend has run her car off an icy road and been killed. Later, Belfa is visited by Darlene's lover, who reiterates that Darlene was truly afraid for her father, and that her fear was not idle.

In between Belfa's musings about what is happening at Thornapple Terrace and her attempts to mother a difficult grown daughter, readers flash back to Harmon Strayer's, Alvie Sherrill's, and Vic Plumley's young teen years, as their fathers, perhaps bored, perhaps in self-hatred, haze and torment their sons. As teenagers, the boys are party to an accident involving a pickup truck. When Pearl Harbor is bombed, even though underage, they cannot wait to enlist. They leave behind a sameness, parents who take out their frustrations on their children and on one another, ignorance of how to create goodness or rightness. In later chapters, we visit the boys during the Omaha Beach invasion, and again upon their return to their home state, where things really did not change. Later, we re-visit the boys as old men, but there are only two of them. One has died, unfortunately, in an automobile accident.

When we become reacquainted with Belfa, we learn that two of the caregivers at Thornapple Terrace have been quite terribly murdered. Belfa starts putting together some pieces, and the shape of the whole puzzle works itself out.

SORROW ROAD is about too many things: children and their parents who love or fail to love them; aging and its terrible depredations upon the value that we try to create out of our chaotic lives; places that seem arrested by poverty, a determined jailer. Any one of these is heavy enough to occupy a whole novel if the author will only let it. Also troubling in this novel is that the point-of-view character seems to be Belfa, but then it seems not to be. A single, unified point-of-view can be the "I" that binds the disparate pieces of a novel together, but that character has to have more going for her than boyfriend problems and a daughter who has gotten into some drugs. Belfa is reacting, not acting. We need to know what drives her forward, what ethic moves her to pursue justice? And, if a novel is to be about a place, Belfa needs to love that place. We need to see it lovingly, warts and all, through her eyes. We need to know what keeps her there, pictured to us so clearly, that we are there, too.

Cathy Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. She teaches American Literature and is a fan of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, January 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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