Rating: 4.75 stars
Buy Link:
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Length: Novel

 

In 1920s Appalachia, Les enters the small town of Spar Creek to inoculate the town against whooping cough, small pox, and typhoid. He’ll take a census of the population, check in on any mothers-to-be or women in need of help, and in general do the good work the Frontier Nursing Service sent him to do. The only problem is that Spar Creek is so much worse off than Les might have expected. The people of the town have been firmly gathered up by the minister, Ames Holladay, whose narrow-minded hatred spreads like an infection. Holladay takes one look at Les and figures out very quickly that Les doesn’t belong.

For Les, being a nurse is his way of doing good. Of making some sense of the world. He cares for children and protects them from sickness, helps mothers through childbirth, brings life into the world rather than holding the hands of young, dying men as they leave it. A survivor of the Great War, Les has seen so much in this world, experienced so much, and knows well enough that he’s going to have to play by the rules if he wants to get his task done in Spar Creek.

So Les smiles when they call him Miss Bruin. He wears skirts to church. He keeps his mouth shut and his smile serene and lets himself be treated like a woman. And maybe things would have been … acceptable, maybe he could have gotten his task done and left in a timely manner if it weren’t for Stevie Mattingly, a young man whose pain Les knows all too well. Whose rage, whose fear, and whose teeth bared in defiance could be Les’ own.

When something horrible happens to Stevie, Les isn’t able to help. And when Stevie comes to Les asking to do something about the child forced upon him, Les isn’t able to help. But he wants to, oh how he wants to. And when Stevie comes to him with words of vengeance, Les says yes.

This is a dark romance — emphasis on the dark — and comes with strong trigger warnings for religious homophobia, mob violence, gun violence, rape, victim blaming, pregnancy because of rape, murder, attempted murder, abortion, homophobia, death in childbirth, and the shunning and casual cruelty of a small town turning against one of their own. It’s also a story of two kindred souls finding one another, aware of the pain they share between them, and turning fear and loneliness into love. But, again, it’s a dark book and will not be for everyone.

I very much enjoyed the author’s spare and eloquent writing:

Sleep had escaped to frolic with the night wildlife. […] The cabin ceiling fluttered with the furry bodies of moths.

Fire, lightning, the bell toll or the red string: every metaphor for connection he’d ever read, all the dead-end fantasies he’d crafted for himself, paled in comparison to the simple rightness he felt holding his boy’s hand. After the war ended, he’d tried to shape himself into a softer person. He’d tried to model his novels, his mentors, to make room for a good love, but the relationships he’d attempted and how he’d attempted them were never going to fit his truth.

Les sees the world through a critical eye, but a loving one. For all the indifference of the townsfolk, Les doesn’t hate them for their smallness, for their narrow mindedness. He understands it and accepts it — and them. He smiles at their pettiness, allows their judgement, accepts their looks and sly comments and not-so-sly cruelties. Because they’re afraid of the unknown, afraid of change, and yelling and screaming at them won’t change their minds … and will certainly not encourage them to accept the vaccinations.

As an “invert” — a man in the body of a woman, who lives as a man (when he’s able) — Les has always walked that fine line between sir and madam. His walk, the way he moves, the way he approaches and deals with other men give him away; it’s hard to duck his head and play the role of a woman, even though here, he has to. Les is full of compromise, and goodness. He means well, willing to forgive and overlook when possible, to try to understand the people around him. He’s the sort of character that would make an excellent paladin, slaying demons and saving the helpless … and meting out justice where needed.

Les was a combat nurse in the Great War and has seen more than enough of blood and violence. And when violence was enacted on him, he did not hesitate to spill blood on his own. It’s why, when Stevie comes for vengeance, for justice, that Les goes along with it. Not out of fear for the townsfolk, but fear for Stevie, for a young man who might get in over his head, too eager to fight when escaping might be the better part of valor.

Stevie is also a man in the body of a woman in a small town where what he is not accepted. When he’s raped by a man in a ‘courting,’ it’s seen as nothing more than what he deserves, and a sign that the young man in question is interested in making an honest woman out of Stevie. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been so public about it. Stevie grew up here; these are his neighbors, people he went to school with, those he works with in the tobacco fields, and with whom he goes to church. And because some preacher talks about hell and damnation, they have allowed him to be hurt. And Stevie is having none of it.

And I’ll be honest, I was there for it. Call it judgement, call it justice, call it revenge, I was there every step of the way, eager to see how Les and Stevie took the town to task. When Les finally stopped smiling at people and let them see his anger, his contempt, his true opinion of the casual indifference these people gave to someone who had been harmed was beautifully done. And then the book took a turn.

There’s a great deal here about religion and folklore, with Holladay mentioning demons and sin and the monsters in the hills, and Stevie himself who vanishes into the woods to make an offering to whatever is out there — old god, spirit, angel or demon — and all of that was groundwork for turning this into a paranormal story. Personally, I think it needed a bit more time to set up; it felt like such tonal whiplash. For me, it felt like a stumble in what was otherwise a fluid story.

Other than that, I enjoyed everything about this book. The atmosphere, the character work, the setting, and especially the moment when Les finally made Holladay shut up. If you enjoy dark stories of revenge and justice — and remember to mind the trigger warnings — this book is definitely something you might enjoy. If you like good characters bringing the hand of retribution to bigots, of seeing someone get tired of playing polite turn around and give someone a piece of their mind, and of two kindred spirits finding one another and igniting a bonfire of a glorious reckoning on someone who roundly deserves it, consider reading this book.