Taking place in the west Texas landscape along the Frio River, much of the action in this chilling novel happens in the real Garner State Park. There Marnie Evans finds solace with the Carpenters, a wild couple of uber-environmentalists. Ranger Rick, as Marnie calls him, is a singing cowboy park ranger. His big-hearted and sensitive wife, Claire, aches for a child to cherish.
Like any other little girl, Marnie just wants her family to love her.
Unfortunately, her family includes a drunken slut, the slut's sinister
abusive boyfriend, a misguided jailbird dad and assorted religious
fanatics. Can you spell "dysfunctional"?
Darden's novel defies pigeon-holing. She considers it a "coming of age" story, but there is no sex involving the main character. An abundance of dread overhangs the plot, a little violence takes place and death definitely plays a part.
Let's just call it "mainstream fiction." featuring luscious descriptions of the settings in which everyone learns a new definition of "family." So, the book could also be labeled suspense or even mystery to some degree. It is unusual to find a mystery without a murder.
Marnie is somewhat unusual, too, for an 11-year-old girl. She is part tomboy who doesn't hesitate to sleep outdoor with creepy critters or crawl under her mother's shack to escape drunken brawls. But the somewhat precocious youngster is also part mystic, finding magic in the jack rabbits and seeing a boot-wearing Texas angel who shows her mysterious signs of the future.
It is her future coming into tenuous question when her father, who has a revolving door relationship with incarceration, comes home from jail. A series of misunderstandings and greedy intentions put Marnie's life at risk. Another's life is lost in one of those rip-roaring Texas summer storms. The tragedy taxes Ranger Rick's soul and his marriage with Claire.
They fall under Marnie's spell, deeply and reluctantly, in one's case, wanting to protect the girl, but unwilling to interfere with another family and their problems. With her, however, they extend their delight in teaching children to value the environment. Their relationships with the plants, flowers, gardening and the huge park itself are a pleasure to read about. They also take joy in teaching Marnie basic skills like cooking and craft work, which highlight how barren her life had been before she slid into the Carpenters' home.
Another factor that stresses the little girl is her relationship with her holier-than-anybody-else relatives. Their fundamentalist beliefs have already made a strong impression on Marnie, who strives to please everyone, a task we know to be, at best, impossible. At worst, it can tear a child apart.
In the midst of the lush depictions of the west Texas landscape falls the sinister shadow of her mother's boyfriend. He frightens and pesters the little girl with a dreaded intent that Marnie only vaguely intuits. But she knows enough to slam and lock her bedroom door and how and when to crawl out her window and run to the shelter of the woods.
It is wandering in the woods that brings her first to Garner State Park. Darden seamlessly weaves in meetings, builds relationships, lobs in a handful of unforgettable "characters" and light-hearted moments now and then to relieve the tension. She keeps the plot unfolding and enfolding with complications seeming to arise quite naturally — just like real life — but still building the underlying stress to peak in a satisfying climax.
Darden's debut novel displays more skill and facility with words than most. She is definitely one to watch.