When C. J. Baxter decides to come home to Adelia, New York for his grandfather’s funeral, he is aware there will be a lot to face. You don’t just break with the family when you leave for college and stay away for seventeen years without there being some fallout. One of the things he’s sure will bite him is the ire of his people because of the fiction he has written. Everyone in town reads his books to see if they can guess which incidents or people his latest tales are based on.
However, C.J. and at least some family members know there is one secret he has never shared. Politically ambitious older brother Graham sure hopes he keeps quiet about it, especially now that his campaign for a senate seat is in high gear.
In Hunter’s Moon Don Hoesel delves into the life and psyche of the Baxter family through its returning prodigal. C.J.’s visit home revives disturbing incidents from the past, breathes life into old relationships, and exposes an ambition so ruthless no price is too high to pay to have it realized.
Hoesel’s considerable storytelling skill made the book a pleasure to read. Though it begins slowly, the foundation laid by the detailed description of the town, the Baxter family and C.J.s reaction to the disintegration of his personal life sets us up for the story’s complex situation and web of relationships. Gradually C.J. reveals the secret that has haunted his life. Incident by incident we get to know the various members of his family. As we come to realize what they are really like, tension escalates. By the final suspense-filled scenes, the book is impossible to put down.
Hunter’s Moon has many characters and the author’s clear vision of each one makes for a satisfying read in the people-watching department. Besides the conflicted C. J. we see a lot of his ambitious older brother Graham, his friend Dennis, his aloof and disapproving father George, his old flame Julie and the kind and arthritic Artie. Hoesel does a great job of exploring family dynamics during mass scenes like family dinners and get-togethers, as well as pitting family members against each other in tense one-on-one encounters.
Family secrets and the way they affect all involved is one of the themes the book explores at length. C. J. comes to see that his self-image has been shaped by one such, but so has it affected his opinion of and relationship with others. The possibility that he could choose to forgive is a new concept for him and one which he fights whenever it comes up.
C. J. is also a recent convert to Christianity. If there is one area where the book stumbles, in my opinion, it is in its treatment of his faith, especially early on. Through the first chapters when he is scheming about how to handle things with his ex-, then reconnecting with his family and attending his grandfather’s funeral service there is not a whisper of any spiritual faith. The first hint of it is announced, via his thoughts, when he includes his “newfound faith in God” in a list of topics he wishes he had the nerve to discuss with his old flame (page 124).
What "newfound faith in God" I asked myself when I read that. For an author who has been so brilliant at showing (versus telling), this felt like an awkward lapse when there had been lots of opportunities to show this new set of beliefs in operation early on (as he struggles with his attitude toward his estranged wife, reconnects with his family, and attends the Catholic – he is now a Protestant, though he was once an altar boy – funeral service of his grandfather). When C. J. does mull over aspects of his faith he appears a reluctant convert, more critical than believing (doesn’t like to confide in his men’s group [p.131] and prefers attendance at the bar to being in church [p.209] – where he takes issue with his denomination's beliefs [p. 210]), though repeated references to the buzzword “grace” seemed the author’s way of telling us C. J. had bought into something deeper than the trappings of any organized church.
The book’s ending is more believable in the faith department, with C. J. making decisions and growing in ways that feel consistent with his character and organic to the story. There are some other nice touches, too, like the way bit-player Sister Jean Marie feels a need to pray during the exact time our hero is in some major trouble.
My quibble aside, the book really is a great read. Its delve into relationships especially within the family is realistic and instructive. Its exploration of the dark side of a family’s life and how things can escalate to the unthinkable is guaranteed to keep you reading way past lights out.Powered by Sidelines