"That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body."
Seventeen-year-old Lucy Dane lives with her father in the tiny Ozark Mountain town of Henbane, where her friend, Cheri, has been murdered and dismembered. When Cheri's body parts are found stuffed into the hollow of a tree across from Lucy's uncle's general store, it’s the first domino falling in a sequence of events linking the present to the past with a chain composed of the blackest secrets and lies.
Cheri's memory haunts Lucy. Although the two drifted apart when they entered high school, Cheri had once spent considerable amounts of time at Lucy's house. People described her as "slow," but Lucy hadn't noticed any difference until she ended up in special education classes around fourth grade. Even as a child, Lucy was appalled that Cheri's mother neglected her, not even checking up on her when Lucy hid her in the closet in order to let her stay overnight. A year before this story begins, Lucy noticed that Cheri quit showing up for the school bus. When she walked through the woods to Cheri's trailer to ask about her, no one answered the door. When the county officials checked, Cheri's mother said her daughter ran away. Even as people searched for Cheri, Lucy didn't believe she had voluntarily taken off, but no one listened to her fears.
"It's difficult not to glory in author Laura McHugh's lyrical phrasing...while almost simultaneously shuddering at some of her revelations. This is an amazing feat of storytelling that is almost certain to terrify readers while also ensnaring them."
After Cheri's body is found, Henbane is filled with fearful citizens buying locks and ammunition. The search for her killer goes nowhere. Time passes, and others seem to forget, but Lucy can't. She also can't help obsessing again over the other huge unsolved mystery Henbane experienced. Lucy's mother, Lila, vanished when Lucy was a baby. Lila had taken her husband's gun into a local cavern labyrinth. Most people believe she committed suicide, falling to her death in the caves --- and yet that explanation has never felt quite right to Lucy.
Lucy's mother, Lila, adds her voice to the narrative beginning at age 18 when she must leave the foster system. Lila's options are limited. Further education would require money she doesn't have. Joining the military would be her last resort, she decides. Then she sees an employment agency looking for workers to fill live-in jobs, such as nannies and help for elderly people. At the agency, the clerk asks her many personal questions and requests a photo. A month later, she receives a contract to work for two years in the tiny town of Henbane.
Lila will work for Crete Dane, the owner of the town's general store. Meanwhile, she is shown to her new home, a room set up in Dane's musty, dark garage. It certainly is not inviting, but at least it's private --- unlike the foster homes Lila has endured. As readers know, eventually Lila will have a baby girl, take a gun into the caverns, and vanish. What happens between her arrival in Henbane and Lucy's search for clues regarding her friend's murder, and what comes afterward, is an engrossing unraveling of the town's darkest secrets and lies.
While the setting and the teen protagonists will draw inevitable comparisons to Daniel Woodrell's WINTER'S BONE, THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD is wholly unique. It's difficult not to glory in author Laura McHugh's lyrical phrasing ("Spring was short-lived. The hills were ecstatic with blooms, an embarrassing wealth of trees and wildflowers: dogwoods in cream and pink, clouds of bright lavender redbuds, carpets of phlox…") while almost simultaneously shuddering at some of her revelations. This is an amazing feat of storytelling that is almost certain to terrify readers while also ensnaring them.
FAIR WARNING: Do not open this page-turner unless you are able to devote many hours to devouring and finishing it. It’s that addictive.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on March 14, 2014