Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book Review - Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Harper Collins 2010

Format? Hardback off my TBR shelf
Where'd I get it? My mom gave me this signed copy for Christmas two (gulp) years ago.

Why?  Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter received a lot of blog time right after it was published...however, what sold me was the setting, South MS...I'm a MS girl who didn't really appreciate MS until I actually had the opportunity to leave it.  So, any chance I get to read a book whose setting is my home, I dive right in.  I do tend to be hyper-critical of MS books, Southern accents, and of course, the stereotypical ways anything about the South is represented.

What Now?  This one's a keeper...I liked this one so much that I didn't even look at the end when things began to heat up.  Anybody who knows me knows that's a big crutch of mine...a crutch for which my firstborn won't speak to me for a while after she knows I've fallen back on it :(   This one's going on the keeper shelves in the antique secretary :)

Golden Lines

The trunks were darker in the rain, some shelved with rows of mushrooms or layered in moss.  The air grew cooler the lower he went and at the bottom he brushed at his shoulders and emptied his hat, the hill tropic behind him, its odor of rain and worms, dripping trees, the air charged as if lightning had just struck, squirrels flinging themselves through patches of sky and the snare-roll of a woodpecker a few hollows over, the cry of an Indian hen.

"Can I have the rattles?" the mullet boy asked.
Silas looked at the women.
"Fine with me," the fat one said.  "His birthday's next month."  She winked to let him know it was a joke, and he bent to work cutting the dry cartilage off with the shovel and kicked it out of the snake's range.  The boy picked it up and smelled it, then ran off shaking it,  the other boys and the dogs following.

But he loved best when the Coca-Cola truck had left six or seven or eight of the red and yellow wooden crates stacked by the machine, the empties gone and the new bottles filled with Sprite, Mr. Pibb, Tab, Orange Nehi, and Coca-Colas, short and tall.   Larry relished unlocking the big red machine, turning the odd cylinder of a key and the square lock springing out.   When you spun this lock the entire red face of the machine hissed open and you were confronted with a kind of heaven.  Long metal trays beaded with ice were tilted toward the slot where they fell to your waiting hand.  The rush of freezing air, the sweet steel smell.  The change box heavy with quarters and dimes and nickels.   Taking bottles from the cases, he'd place each one in its rack, considering the order, taking care not to clink.

Twenty-five years later, his head full of the past, here in Larry Ott's kitchen, Silas stared at the photograph of his mother.  Because they'd lost their things on the trip from Chicago, this was the first picture of her he'd seen in decades, her light skin, hair drawn back in a scarf.  The smile she wore was the one she used around white people, not the one he remembered when she was genuinely happy, where every part of her face moved and not just her lips, how her eyes wrinkled, her hairline went back, how you saw every gleaming white tooth, the kind of smile he'd seen fewer and fewer times the older she got.  But this plastic smile, the photograph, was better than no picture at all.


Silas Jones, better known as "32" and Larry Ott are old friends from childhood.  Silas moved to MS from Chicago with his mama Alice, while Larry has always lived in MS with his mother and father.  The two become great friends who spend their time fishing, mowing grass, catching snakes, and all the other things young boys do.  Silas is a ball player, and Larry likes to read books, yet somehow their personalities compliment each other.   However, there is one aspect of their friendship that works against them, Silas is black and Larry is white in 1970's small town Mississippi where integration is new (1968) and raw.  While as young boys these differences don't make much of an impact on their friendship, by the time they are in jr. high, the two have grown apart.  Silas becomes a popular baseball player who leaves for Ole Miss on a scholarship and Larry becomes an outcast who stays behind reading his books.
During their jr year in high school a young woman disappears.  Larry is the last one to see her alive and becomes the person of interest in her disappearance.  Even though a body is never found and Larry is adamant about his innosence, the rest of the town is convinced that Scarey Larry is the murder.
After graduating from Ole Miss, Silas moves back to MS to become the constable and keeps his eye, albeit from a distance, on Larry, who has become completely ostracized from his community.  Then another girl disappears, and all eyes are on Larry again.  But, Silas knows Larry is innocent.  How he knows and whether or not he can clear Larry and come to terms with his own shortcomings are the conflicts embedded in this fast moving novel.  

What I Liked

Holy Smokes, the writing...I will be reading anything else I can get my hands on by Tom Franklin...I enjoy description done well...I am a lover of words and obviously so is Franklin.   Franklin's vivid descriptions of MS heat, kudzu, sweat, grass, bugs, pine trees, etc are spot on.  The characters themselves are so richly done that you feel like you know them.  You want to cut them some slack but then you don't.  You're sad when good folks mess up...but from a contemporary perspective, you somehow know that these were complicated times...actions that would never occur now unanswered for were commonplace even in the 1970's.

Voncille - the town clerk.  You say her name Von you know how many women I've known named Voncille?  Do you know that I've never seen the name written...anywhere?  Do you know how tickled I was to have a character named Voncille??  Tee Hee :)

"Preciate" - Do you know how many times a day I say this?? This is MS slang for the word "appreciate."  I constantly use the phrase "preciate you" or "preciate it."  We also don't "borrow" things; we "borry" them :)  There are so many other examples of dialogue like this that made me think Tom Franklin had to have grown up in the South.  

The plot - I knew who the murderer was by the time the character enters the story...but this book was about so much more than the identity of this character.  The events were intertwined in such a way that the reader truly becomes emotionally involved in the story.

The story vacillates between the present and the past...again, this book is not just about solving a murder, but it's also about who these men are, who they were as children, where they came from, how they became friends, the societal expectations that fought against their friendship, and of course, the men they each individually became.  There is no good guy, bad guy in this's incredibly complicated...which in many circumstances is so very much how life is.

What I Didn't Like

Of course I don't like any portrayal of MS as a racist state...but duh.  I think history must include the pieces we're not proud of as well as the parts we want to shout to the world.  Part of what's wrong with our world today is that we've grown up with a whitewashed version of our country's history...we're proud of things that either never happened or events that have been exaggerated or strategically altered so that we always look like the good guys.  I've read and been depressed enough by Howard Zinn's book The People's History of the United States to realize the dangers of blindly filling in the blanks to fluff things up a bit.  Franklin doesn't fluff anything up; there were parts of this book that were tough to read for me...even places where I winced. But, sometimes the truth hurts.  Truth that matters, anyway.
There's also a part of this history that is simply ours as Southerners...the barefooted kids playing running around with a rattlesnake rattle, the language, the heat, the diner, the sittin' on the front porch, smokin' a cigarrette, drankin' a beer kinda stuff. ;)

The dialogue was a little over the top at times...while we all slide into the deep deep dialect at times, Franklin's characters seemed to always leave out their verbs or talk like the most ignorant people you've ever met.  That stung a little bit I think simply bc that's not my day to day experience...depending on who you're talking to, the level of education, and where they live depends on how much dialect you have to stomach.  Professional Mississippians generally speak standard English in professional situations, but Franklin's characters seem to always be in backwoods mode. I grew up and live in the rural South and do fall back into  a conversational country tone most every single day (depending on who I'm talking to, of course), but when I'm "on the job" so to speak, I am very careful and very cognizant of how I sound to others.  Of course, as I'm typing this, I'm also remembering that I work in a community college and my professional expectations are probably very different from what's expected of Franklin's characters.  The dialect is definitely something to prepare for though bc you can't overlook it.

Overall Recommendation

This is a great story and a honest look at life in a small Southern town...two friends, two races, other differences and societal expectations concerning those differences.  It's also about how stereotypical ideas can hurt the innocent while covering up guilt...and I'm not just talking about black and white.  


  1. I've been looking forward to reading this one, but now after reading (most) of your review (I didn't want to get any other preconceived notions except that it was good enough to go in the secretary) I'm tripley looking forward to it!

    I have it out on e-loan from the library, but have to finish up a review book (that looks like awesome southern lit too) before I start it.

    Yay! I'm so glad you liked this book!!

    1. Laura, tell me what you're reading now so I can get my hands on it as well :) I love good Southern lit!

  2. I loved this on audio with all of my heart. The narrator (I thought) was excellent. I'd be curious if you thought so, with your knowledge of the accents. I have met Tom and have had him call in to one of my book clubs, and he is THE NICEST MAN you will ever meet. He had us eating out of his hand. He is a Southern boy, loves Stephen King, and is writing a book right now with his wife. But they had a surprise blessing/late baby and are consumed with that right now.

    1. Oh Sandy, I'm so glad to hear that!! I'd love to hear a snippet of the audio as well...I can sometimes be ultra critical of the accents/dialects but it's just one of those things that grates on my nerves. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next :)