When Katie Devine meets her doctor for sex in his consulting room, they are interuppted by three prurient schoolboys who have climbed a tree to watch, but manage to fall through the skylight. This is not comedy, however. Katie’s abusive husband, Hank, murders the doctor in his own home. Losing her job as school administrator and therefore unable to afford to continue living in her trailer, Katie returns home to Cedar Branch, where she grew up, to live with her brother, Sam. Hank’s truly evil brother, Ray, pursues her, alleging that Katie harmed her own teenage children and nobbling witnesses who might give evidence against Hank. The storyline builds to stupendous climax, which lurches from crisis to resolution back to crisis, taking some astounding turns and twists, underpinned by Brenda’s thorough understanding of Quakers and their theology… but I’m not providing a spoiler.
This is Brenda’s second novel, following The Quaker Cafe. ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ is more ambitious than ‘The Quaker Cafe’, which had overtones of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It’s a story about the white underclass, what Eminem called ‘trailer trash’, a sector of society that hasn’t featured in many novels I’ve read. (I’m being careful here because I’m no expert on American literature.) The moral compass is very broad, condoning Katie’s affair with her doctor, because she’s in an abusive relationship, and applauding her for suing his estate for professional misconduct. On the other hand, we have the Quakers’ robust moral tone, especially regarding violence, and their stoic bravery during the crisis at the end. I don’t think we can really call this Christian fiction.
‘Home to Cedar Branch’ involves a huge number of characters, some of whom only feature for a few pages, or even a few lines. It’s the American custom in literature suddenly to plonk a police officer, or a bystander, into the middle of the action, with lots of details about who he is and his everyday life, then abandon them. Some characters, like the elderly Quaker farmer, Leland Slade, are always there but only take the stage much later. Others deserved more wordage, like Katie’s daughter, Savannah, a devout Christian who allowed her uncle to insinuate himself into her good graces by implying that her father had turned to Jesus and was innocent anyway. Her sense of betrayal later on is under-played. Similarly, Katie’s son, Dusty, who won’t speak to her, indeed won’t come out of his room, is too easily sorted out by good wholesome Sam and Quaker friend Ben. The Quakers don’t appear until late in the story and this works. I was disappointed that, out of the major characters in ‘The Quaker Cafe’, Billie had a minor role only, and Liz Hoole, the main character, was omitted altogether, even though her husband and son featured.
Another feature I enjoyed, in both ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ and ‘The Quaker Cafe’, was the way in which the American love of sport, particularly basketball, is incorporated into the lives of the characters. Very authentic.
Although this is not a literary work, we writers have much to learn from Brenda’s writing technique, particularly her splendid descriptions of characters and their actions, like when Anna, the elderly Quaker, a ‘barrel of a woman… balanced herself by putting a hand on the end of each pew’. This is where characters come alive.
Great stuff. Thoroughly recommended.
I cannot find a direct, non-Amazon link to this book, but do take a look at the reviews on Brenda’s website.
By the way, I’m on the ACW (Association of Christian Writers) More Than Writers blog tomorrow (13 September 2016). Do drop in. You don’t have to be an ACW member to comment.