Bent Road, Lori Roy’s debut novel is a winner. A suspenseful example of American Gothic, its shocking twists and turns will keep you turning page after page to conclusions both surprising and inevitable. Set in the sixties in rural Kansas, it is a story of a man who left his home and family as a youth after the death of one his older sisters and is now returning with his family. Arthur Scott, his wife and three children have been living in Detroit, but sparked by the racial riots and a number calls to his oldest daughter from some black young men, Arthur decides that perhaps Thomas Wolfe was wrong; perhaps you can go home again.
The problem is that while the big city may have its public terrors, small town Kansas has private demons of its own — demons perhaps even more terrifying because they have been kept buried for years. Arthur has stayed away for years, but he has never shared with his wife Celia the reasons for his self enforced exile. He hadn’t even returned for his father’s funeral. His mother is still there and another sister and her husband, but for all intents and purposes they are strangers. From the beginning the tone is ominous. The family is driving in a caravan on a dark dangerous road. Celia and the children are in one car; Arthur is in a loaded truck up ahead. But quickly, she falls back and loses sight of him. Shadows in the darkness look like monsters to the young children. One even appears to be a man, and her young son, Daniel, certain the car has hit him, startles her, and she nearly swerves into a ditch at the side of the road. And this is only the beginning.
Most of the narrative is seen through the eyes of Celia and her two younger children. Although later there are some passages in the voice of her sister-in-law, Ruth, the fact that the reader gets nearly the entire story from outsiders who aren’t always happy or comfortable with their new situation adds to the menacing tone of the novel. The children have trouble making friends. Celia finds her mother-in-law’s interference galling and her brother-in-law Ray’s attentions disturbing. Life in rural Kansas is primitive and uncivilized compared to life in the city. The women don’t even wear white gloves to church on Sundays. Young boys are given rifles and expected to use them. Women have to learn how to slaughter chickens for Sunday dinner.
Very quickly, however, things go beyond the simple discomfort of strangers in a strange land. There is a deteriorating shed on the mother’s property that Arthur won’t go near. Daniel is introduced to a gaggle of young brothers who are busily engaged in torturing a little kitten. There are suspicions in the town that Ray may have been involved in the earlier death of the sister. But most importantly, soon after their arrival a young girl disappears. Rumors and accusations abound, and family tensions are aggravated. As with all thrillers, expect the unexpected. Expect the unexpected, and you’ll get it.
This despite the fact that the novel is completely grounded in what seems to be the normal and mundane. There is nothing exotic in this story. We are shown a world of strawberry pies and casseroles, dumplings and fried chicken. Boots get tight as boys grow tall. Snow needs to be cleared off flat roofs. Cows get loose when children forget to lock gates. One is reminded of the 19th century poet Wordsworth and his aim to show the strange and mysterious in the ordinary. Mysterious shadows may turn out to be tumble weeds, but they may just as well turn out to be something more threatening.
The nice thing about Roy’s novel is that none of the revelations seem farfetched. Everything is adequately foreshadowed. This may be her first novel, but she knows what she’s doing. She knows how to construct a thriller. Nearly all the clues are there if you are smart enough to see them. She is careful to plant the seeds for the climactic moments all through the narrative, some more obviously than others, but never so obviously as to give away the game. You know you are being manipulated, but manipulation so effective? How can you quarrel with it? Let’s hope, she’s got another one coming, and she can do it all over again.