John Scott Winters’ well-paced, cleverly plotted novel set in the early 1930s follows protagonist Harley Felts, a farmer.
The story opens with Harley digging a grave on a hill overlooking the family tobacco farm in Tennessee and weighted down by his memories. The grave is for his wife Ellie, mother of four sons, who died giving birth to their first daughter. Her funeral introduces the boys and friends from the community who are united in mourning the loss and in sincerely offering to help Harley cope.
At first, the days are difficult indeed as Harley tends to the crop and farm animals and cooks meals while caring for the youngest boy and new baby. But gradually, Winters, working with an impressive sense of plot development, unfolds a family saga moving from struggle and danger to togetherness and, finally, to love.
The unfolding begins when Sara, a young woman sent from Baltimore to spend time with relatives (for reasons the author only suggests before revealing her as more exile than visitor), moves onto the Felts’ farm. There, despite initial misgivings of the eldest son, she soon becomes an essential family member, cooking, caring for the youngest children, even helping harvest, strip and store the tobacco.
The novel is expertly constructed. The author maintains tight control of the sweeping narrative by reinforcing the roles of central characters with their actions in key incidents, such as when Sara solidifies her position in the Felts family by violently rescuing Harley from injury or worse. He also skillfully uses weather events as subtle triggers for human drama to come. Particularly impressive is the way Winters fully portrays even supporting characters.
The result is a finely crafted story that offers numerous rewards: from its authentic portrait of time and place to its realistic look at how members of one family struggle to integrate a troubled past into a hopeful future. Readers will savor the journey.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.