Set in the rural Virginia mountaintop community of Crawford in 1959, Bausch’s multi-narrated novel goes to the heart of love, deceit, dashed dreams and hope. Penny Bone, who lives with her daughter and her Aunt Clare, but who’s really been on her own a long time, centers the novel with her strong, young voice, a voice so strong people don’t see the fear at her core. As the story opens, Penny’s Aunt Clare is missing and her 7-year-old daughter, Tory, unearths some writing on a white stone at the edge of their yard. A gravestone, perhaps.
Penny latches onto the stone as a focus for her fears. Her mother died when she was a baby and her father was killed in the war when she was 11. Raised by Clare, who is subject to benders and running off with men, Penny learned self-reliance before she knew what it was. She met John Bone in Crawford’s tiny school, married at 17 and lost him by the time her daughter was born. Not that John Bone is dead. John accidentally killed a girl and got 20 years for manslaughter. Penny recalls: “When they took him away he says, ‘I’m dead to you, and you got to be dead to me.’ And now Clare’s been missing for weeks, longer than she’s ever been gone before.”
“After a while, even with Tory sitting next to me and chattering about the stone, I felt kind of lonely and sad. It seemed like the air I inhaled could spread out anywhere in my body, and make me cold and afraid at the same time. I can’t explain it. I wanted a car to come. Somebody I knew to get out and visit for a spell.”
The narration switches to John Bone, feeling the first stirrings of hope he’s allowed himself in six years. During a jail break-out, when he could have run, he saved a guard’s life instead. There’s talk of doing something for him in return. But the man who did escape, Peach, a thoroughly chilling psychopath, had once looked for treasure up at the old Crawford place at the top of the mountain, near where Penny lives, and Bone worries he’s headed back there.
Back in Crawford, Penny’s friend Morgan, an old man who can remember the last of the Crawfords, the one who became the Gypsy Man, worries over the signs he’s seeing of the Gypsy Man’s return. Born with a birthmark that blighted half his face, kidnapped, supposedly by Gypsies, as a toddler, then returned a few years later, the last Crawford became a fire bug. Though he was nearly 50 when he disappeared for good 40 years before, people still blame the Gypsy Man whenever there’s a fire or a missing child. The last child to go missing still haunts the community--a boy from the black enclave further down the mountain, he was the first to integrate Crawford’s school and the sheriff still looks for him. Now Morgan’s seeing the signs again and Penny’s after him to help her dig out that white stone.
When Clare shows up, beaten and evasive, her house key missing, the reader knows it’s Peach she’s been with, and the sinister undertone takes on an edge of dread. The narrative shifts among the varied voices of the characters, including the schoolmaster, his wife, Clare, the sheriff, Morgan, Penny, John, Peach and more. They don’t always tell the whole truth and some are guilty of deceiving themselves, but they each contribute to the fabric of a community trying to hold together in the face of calamity, loss and horror. Before it’s done there’s more death and horror, but also redemption and acceptance as Penny learns that hope has value and love endures.
Bausch’s (A Hole in the Earth)
risky narrative works because of the distinctiveness of his character’s voices and the rich simplicity of his prose. These mountain voices reveal more than the depth of their prejudices and the foibles of their character, more than their level of education and the regrets that come with age, more than the small piece of the whole they’ve seen from their considered perspective. Individually they reveal the hidden places in the human heart; together they show the complex weave of a community, in all its ugly grubbiness as well as its Sunday best.