Raymond L. Atkins,
Sorrow Wood
(Medallion Press, 2009)

In 2007, Raymond L. Atkins published one of my favorite novels of the year, The Front Porch Prophet, which went on to win the Georgia novel of the year award. That book was at once a fairly accurate tale of life in the small town south and an archetypal examination of America's people and ideas. Sorrow Wood is his followup novel, and while it shares many of the concerns of The Front Porch Prophet, it strikes out in a different direction. It is not, as the mystery writers say, the same, only different.

You don't read Atkins for plot. Sorrow Wood has a murder at the heart of the story, but it's really not that important. We don't even discover that it has taken place until we're a hundred or so pages into the novel. No, with Atkins, what counts is the characters. He has a keen eye for the oddballs and outlaws of the American South and loves them, loves being in their company and rendering them alive on paper. He is also good at puncturing the balloons of self-inflated people who think money and position make them somehow better than the rest of us.

In this book, Wendell Blackmon is the chief of police of tiny Sand Valley, Alabama. Until the town, in a misguided dream of growth and prosperity, annexed all of the surrounding territory, he was the entire police force. Since the annexation vastly increased the amount of land he has to cover, the council gave him a deputy. Wendell is married to Reva, who is the town's probate judge -- not by choice but because the townspeople keep reelecting her by a write-in vote.

As I said, what little plot guides the book is Wendell's search for the person who killed the local witch, whose coven is actually a sort of minor-league sex club. Actually, though, what Atkins gives us is a loving portrait of middle-aged love. His novel skips through time, telling us the story of how Reva and Wendell met during World War II, got married and created a life together over the next 40 years. It's the story not just of how people fall in love, but how people remain in love. Reva and Wendell are the solid center in a town filled with eccentrics. They rely on each other, trust each other, support each other and truly define the term partnership.

Forget the murder plot. It's not that important. What is important is the story of a great and enduring love. Atkins clearly loves his characters. You will, too.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

31 October 2009

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