Charles Martin's maturation as a writer is clearly evinced through stronger prose and interesting characterizations in his third novel, WHEN CRICKETS CRY.
Like his first two Southern-infused novels, THE DEAD DON'T DANCE and WRAPPED IN RAIN, this is an emotional read. Little Annie Stephens is in the second grade, but if she doesn't find a donor heart --- and a surgeon with a specific set of "miracle" skills to do the transplant work --- she'll never see third. To earn money for her transplant, she raises crickets for bait and runs a lemonade stand under the watchful eye of her Aunt Cindy, who is caring for her after her parents' death.
While selling lemonade, Annie meets the shabby-looking "Reese Mitch" (Jonathan Reese Mitchell), who lives on Lake Burton just hours from Atlanta. He grieves the loss of his wife Emma, his childhood sweetheart, whose dicey heart birthed his now abandoned career. It doesn't take too many pages before the reader figures out just what his former career was --- and what will be required of him if Annie is to live. But does Reese have the nerve and desire to use his gifts, and to learn to love again?
WHEN CRICKETS CRY is full of passages such as this: "That afternoon many of the pieces fell into place, and it struck me that doctors can help people get well, even prolong their lives but they cannot heal them or make them whole. That's something else." The brief depiction of Reese's relationship with Dr. Ezra Trainer will give the reader goosebumps, and there are plenty of specific details about the heart that readers will find informative. Also, there's a gorgeous scene where Reese takes a late-night bath in the old claw-footed iron tub he and Emma used to share that crackles with poignancy and love. Many readers will appreciate such straightforward wisdom as when Reese says, "All hearts stop, Annie. What matters is what you do with it when it's still pumping."
Martin's good descriptions are occasionally marred by overwriting (as this reviewer found in the prologue) and he sometimes succumbs to listing things rather than letting them be a natural part of the story. ("When it's not being run over by the Jet Ski crowd, the lake is home to migrating mallards, buffleheads, mergansers, and loons. Come springtime, cardinals, finch and mockingbirds.") These are great details, but they need more nuance. Also, flashback chapters might have been more clearly identified as such rather than letting the reader begin each chapter not knowing whether they are in the past or the present.
But these small problems do not detract from the sheer pleasure of the story. The characters are engaging --- from the unprepossessing "Termite" (Termidus Cain) to the haggard Cindy (who has echoes of the love interest in WRAPPED IN RAIN). Rich details and Martin's uncanny ability to unfold just the right amount of information a little at a time keep the pages turning. You can't help but be struck at Martin's talent for telling a story well as this one draws to its inevitable conclusion, with some surprising twists.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on January 24, 2011
When Crickets Cry