Plot or Premise
Keziah Dane is a struggling single mother in 1939. Her husband died two years before in a flood, trying to rescue other townspeople, and her son was taken too. This leaves Keziah with no money, and she has to look after four remaining sons and two daughters. In addition, her mother-in-law has gone a little batty with the loss of her son, leaving Keziah to take care of her too. A passing drifter sees the family burying the family dog and figures if they are burying something, it must be money. He ingratiates himself into the family posing as an unconventional minister, and tries to figure out how to get the money. The sub-stories are fairly straightforward – the oldest son wants to go back to the flooded town and dive for salvage, despite the danger; the second oldest son is working for a local farmer and falling in love with the daughter; and the remaining family members are struggling through being at school with much wealthier families.
What I Liked
The sub-story with the second oldest son falling in love with the local farmer’s daughter is really well-done. Her mother is a hypochondriac with a small problem with her foot, but it is interesting to see how the son deals with her, ending up as an excuse to spend time in the house near the daughter. The blossoming romance between the two of them – one practical, one romantic – is really well done, and natural, albeit perhaps mis-placed in time (would work even better in the 1800s, except for the physical side perhaps). I also like the hook for using the farmer himself to drive a plot twist near the end. There is a scene with the drifter and the buried treasure that is beyond disgusting, and made me shudder – a perfectly done description by Grafton. I could see it and I really didn’t want to anymore. Blech. In a good way. The struggle of the children to adapt to their situation, the realization that they are poor and what that means, is strongly written, and captures the heartache, pride, jealousy, desire, fear, happiness, and importance of family that goes along with it. I thought there were a few too many young kids to talk about in the story, and Grafton could have got by with two fewer in my view, but it was not a complete distraction.
What I Didn’t Like
The opening is fairly basic, reminiscent of Old Yeller, and doesn’t do much to hook the reader. I’m almost ambivalent towards Keziah Dane herself as she seems like the perfect mother – understanding when she needs to be, long-time sufferer or martyr who soldiers on, but I would have liked to see more conflict within her. A lover perhaps that she goes to visit occasionally. In addition, there is a conflict near the end of the story that is bizarre in detail, although so confused and disjointed in places that it is hard to tell what exactly is happening. The ending is also a little pat, with everyone better off. Grafton potentially missed an opportunity with the chronology – setting the story in November 1939 could have included a hint of the outside world intruding, but no wind of change is blowing their way. It could have easily been set in the 1800s with no real loss of story.
The Bottom Line (★★★★☆)
Grafton can write stories without detectives!