Let me begin by telling you that I truly have no idea why I liked this book. All I know is that the concept (a town where people don't speak, except on chalkboards) is intriguing, and there is something about it which makes it compulsively readable. Also, the design of the book is lovely. I so adore the chapter headings that I cut one out of the galley and hung it on my bulletin board.
At the outset, and I mean the first sentences, you are aware that religion will play a large part in the book. There is a deep and abiding spiritual sensibility throughout. The only problem is that it is hard to understand why, except to say that southerners are a religious lot. Until the appearance of the dreaded preacher in Part II, you just go along thinking "my, these folks sure have the fear of God." When the importance of that fear is brought to light, any misgivings you may have had are blown away.
Part I of CHALKTOWN did prove a difficult read for no other reason than it took that long to get used to the language and the people who populate this book --- and that is not necessarily a bad thing. By making the reading challenging, it enables more careful reading, and thereby lets you get at the essence of what the novel is trying to say. At its core, CHALKTOWN is about how you can't leave who you are --- and how some will try anything to change that.
In sparsely populated George County, Mississippi lies Chalktown --- a small village of people who communicate only through chalkboards on their front porches. Down the road from this bizarre place lives the Sheehand family: 16-year-old Hezekiah, his sister Arena, his disabled younger brother Yellababy, and their disaffected mother Susan-Blair, whose husband has all but abandoned the family. One day, Hezekiah straps Yellababy to his back and heads toward Chalktown, determined to explore its mysteries as well as get away from the oppressive atmosphere of his home. Little does he know that the family he leaves behind will confront a tragedy that same day, which will alter the course of his life dramatically.
True to her upbringing, Melinda Haynes returns (after MOTHER OF PEARL) to the South, weaving a tapestry of deep sorrow and bright salvation. CHALKTOWN is beautifully crafted. From design, to plot, to character building, she doesn't miss a beat. The novel is replete with beautiful language, so thick with words that you begin to read it at the slow southern pace it deserves. Filled with the southern vernacular, some statements shine through. I found myself saying "I'll be go to hell" for a week after finishing the book.
Chapter 17, the beginning of Part II of the novel, is where I began to love the characters Haynes has created. These people are the Everyman. Annie Gentle is immensely likable at once --- so much so that her fate is doubly hard to bear. And Aaron is easily one of the most interesting people to populate this novel. I'd have liked to have spent even more time with him.
As one character states, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick." A truer statement could not have been written about these people. They are a community of people suffering from hope deferred. But they keep plugging away. They keep on hoping until, one day, it breaks them. Marion hopes for "the singin' girl," Henry hopes for his wife back, John hopes for the love of Annie, and they all hope for salvation.
There is a point, late in CHALKTOWN, where the secrets kept by these characters unfold in brilliant color. And the shock of what they hold is almost too much to bear. For someone who usually has a pretty good handle on what is going on in a novel, I had no idea. None. To this day, when I think about it, I become shocked all over again.
Some of the characters are a bit underdeveloped; Julia is especially underdeveloped for the large part she plays in the redemption of one character. And some things still remain a question to this reader: Who is the girl that doesn't wear underwear with whom Marion is so obsessed? Is it Hezekiah's friend Cathy? I must reread to find out!
With its well-resolved ending --- featuring the preacher you love to hate --- as well as a nice cyclical effect overall, CHALKTOWN is well worth the effort it may take some in the beginning. I'll be go to hell, I'd even go so far as to say that this will make an excellent book-group book. There is much here to discuss: spirituality, secrets, family, communication. Exploring the depths of CHALKTOWN is an effort rewarded.
Reviewed by Josette Kurey on May 2, 2001