Peet displays a breathtaking gift for weaving stories together, hopping effortlessly from one perspective to another without ever confusing the reader. Side characters spring to life, including Daniel’s mother, Shelly, desperate to make something of herself and doomed to fail, and Mrs. Redmond, who wants to celebrate her husband’s death with a parade. Peet poetically binds the ensemble together through effortless shifts in time (“He turned 25. He turned around twice, his father died, and then he was 26. He blinked. 27”) and distinctive prose that gives the reader a sense of looking at the town through a magnifying glass.
Everyone in Hawthorn has a distorted sense of reality; hallucinations are as common as drunkenness, and Peet sometimes leaves the reader guessing where the line is between truth and nightmare—or whether there’s a line at all. This startlingly brilliant modern gothic pulls no punches in its devastating takedown of life in the rural Midwest.
Takeaway: Fans of unsettling drama and deeply emotional histories will be bowled over by this gritty and brilliant Midwestern gothic novel.
Great for fans of Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
Daniel was most certainly not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. And based on the stark depiction of Jackass Flats, nobody was. While Daniel is central to most of the story, the book spans many decades and numerous unadorned characters. Daniel was born to an alcoholic father and an unprepared mother. Tragedy follows and he ends up the son of a charismatic local pastor. Even after gaining a family, including a brother, his mundane life remains haunted by heartbreak after heartbreak.
While the book tells the tumultuous life story of Daniel, it encompasses so much more. It tells of the rise and fall of a town and of a way of life. The book covers a litany of important issues such as racism and inclusion. People come and go from his life, but in the end Daniel’s maturation is evident. He felt that, “the world wasn’t always so bad and that you could find pockets of beauty anywhere if you choose to see it.”
James Peet writes an inspired and poignant story with brutal honesty and an abundance of heart. For an intimate look at the passage of time in a small town, read The Ghosts of Hawthorn Missouri.
A small-town Midwestern community suffers and seeks salvation in Peet’s debut novel.
The story opens in Jackass Flats, a dead-end section of Hawthorn, Missouri. The neighborhood has a checkered past; not long after its founding, the pastor’s wife was found shot between the eyes, and Pastor Stephen Shrine was hanged by members of the Ku Klux Klan. For generations, the residents bore the weight of this brutal legacy. Currently, the Haights are the only African-American family in Jackass Flats. The racial tension is palpable, and 9-year-old Terrence Haight has already developed an “internal strength” and an “involuntary hardness.” As he grows older, he develops a love of music, and after leaving the Army, he attends college in the hope of becoming a music teacher. His hopes are realized in Hawthorn only to be suddenly dashed when he’s accused of having an affair with a white student. Meanwhile, Father Redmond, the current pastor of Hawthorn Baptist Church, positions himself as the one man who can hold the community together—but he seems far closer to the devil than to the God he purports to serve. The novel follows the lives of a range of other disparate characters, including Eric, the pastor’s son—a young boy with a grudge and a psychotic streak—and Daniel, the son of Terrence’s former student, who seems cast adrift in a tempestuous world. Peet gives readers the uncanny sense that they’re looking down on a strange, ungodly place: “Hawthorn and Dogwood trees gave it a lovely appearance from Heaven, but perhaps not from the ground, where you could see it up close.” One can draw parallels between this book’s dark opening and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945), as both capture a world inside a vacuum. As with Steinbeck, readers will become deeply engaged in the characters’ clumsy navigations through life, hoping that redemption or reparation will follow. Peet is a skilled writer who offers succinct and unique turns of phrase: “The wrinkles of Jim Crow hadn’t yet been fully ironed out in that part of the country.” Overall, he delivers a masterful debut that moves provocatively between a nightmare and grim reality.