I think I would have done better to have saved Virginia Reeves’ powerful debut for another time. I read it while flu-ridden and alone for a couple of days, unable to get out there and find some company. All of which is by way of saying that this is not the cheeriest of novels. It begins with the foreshadowing of a death and deals with the fallout from that death, the devastation of a marriage and the ruination of a life. Lest I’ve put you off entirely, however, I should mention that there is redemption – hard-won though it is – and the writing makes the painful journey to it more than worthwhile.
There are very few things a boy can do for a living in 1920s Alabama. Coal is king but Roscoe has conceived a passion for electricity and found himself an apprenticeship. He’s entranced by this new form of power, seeing the future writ large in lights, eclipsed only by his love for Marie. By the time her father dies leaving Marie the farm to run, their marriage is already strained, the many children they’d planned reduced to just one son. Roscoe refuses to take up the running of the farm, leaving it to Wilson and his family who worked for Marie’s father for many years. Then Roscoe conceives a plan: he will bring electricity to the farm. All it would take is a little adjustment to plug into the Alabama electrical grid, bringing power to Marie’s land and modernising the failing farm. For two years the farm prospers but then a young man is killed while inspecting Roscoe’s illegal handiwork. Roscoe is sentenced for larceny and manslaughter as is Wilson for his part in helping him. The difference is that Roscoe is white and will serve his time at Kilby jail while Wilson is black, subject to ‘leasing’ by the mining corporation – slavery by any other name. Reeves unfolds her tale through Roscoe over the nine years of his incarceration.
Roscoe spends his time in jail longing for his wife who refuses to answer his letters. He’s a well-behaved prisoner, soon achieving trustee status but wracked with misery at what he’s done, not least to Wilson. He endures brutality and finds ways to make his life a little easier, never giving up hope that Marie will forgive him no matter how forlorn the prospect becomes. Alternating between first and third person narratives Reeves tells Roscoe’s story in language which is immediate and direct. Roscoe’s urge to escape and his constant persuasion of himself against it are powerfully portrayed: ‘I could run right now, take to the cotton like Jennings, crawl my way through its branches until I get to the woods. I do this again and again. I run. I escape. I return to my wife and son’. Prison life is bleak and purposeless: ‘I fear we don’t grow, either, here in these walls. Instead, we go backward.’ It’s all a little relentless, a relief when Roscoe returns home to find it changed yet unchanged, the forgiveness of Wilson and his family – surely the most wronged parties of the whole sorry story – contrasting starkly with Marie’s granite judgement. In the end redemption is won, and very welcome it is too. it’s quite an achievement but perhaps best read when cheerful.