Themes of loss, grief, racial prejudice and the power of love resound throughout ANGEL'S REST, Charles Davis's debut novel. It's 1967 in Sunnyside, Virginia, and Charlie York's life is about to fall apart. The 11-year-old's father, a likable television repairman and mayor of the small town, has been shot dead in the family's kitchen. Traumatized, Charlie is unable to remember details of the killing, until time and his mother help him face the truth.
Set against the backdrop of Angel's Rest, an Allegheny mountain ridge, Davis paints a convincing portrait of a young boy's love for his parents and his struggle to make sense of a life suddenly gone awry. Angel's Rest is so named because it was believed that angels waited on the summit to come down and help those in need of God's assistance. For Charlie, the unlikely angel is the scarred African American octogenarian Lacy Albert Coe. When Charlie's "momma" is jailed for suspicion of murder, Lacy steps in and cares for the boy at her request --- and against the wishes of Charlie's prejudiced and vindictive grandfather. Lacy's selfless love and courage in the face of racial hatred is one of the strongest themes of the book.
Lacy's wisdom is evinced through his dialogue with Charlie. After his house is burned down and he suffers other indignities at the hands of those angry about him taking care of Charlie, he tells Charlie: "You just can't take much away from an old feller who ain't got nothing left. The folks who do all the mistreating and hating against black folks who ain't done a dang thing to them...their times is ending, you see. Some of them just don't know it yet." He cautions Charlie, "...hating folks is learned young. It's hard to get it out of a man if he grows up in it....Easiest thing in the world to do is to hate. Don't take no effort at all, you see."
The tension increases. "Die, nigger" is spray-painted in snow in the front yard. Mysterious threatening phone calls and letters disrupt their lives. Two state troopers are stationed at Charlie's house to guard him and Lacy from harm.
But who killed John York? The troubled war veteran, Hollis Thrasher, is a likely suspect, and Davis sows seeds of his possible guilt throughout the novel. Townsfolk say Charlie's mother killed his dad, others pin the deed on Charlie. Few accept his mother's explanation of John accidentally shooting himself while cleaning his shotgun.
Charlie's cute neighbor, Mary Elouise, offers eyewitness insights that make Charlie sick to his stomach and raises more questions. What was his mother's relationship to Hollis? Did his mother murder his father? It's not until the epilogue that all of the loose ends are tied up for the reader.
The faith themes are subtle. In one passage, Lacy ties religious intolerance to racial intolerance: "Now the truth is if those same folks were born somewheres else, they'd be taught some other religion and they'd be shaking their fists the same way they do now but then they'd be saying that other religion is the one true religion and if you don't believe in it you're wrong." Charlie's own conflicts about faith are shown in one scene as he pretends prayers he no longer offers to God at the dinner table.
Davis convincingly shows the rollercoaster emotions of an 11-year-old boy who loves his father, mother and grandparents, yet is confused over the circumstances of his beloved father's death and his grandfather's racist ways. Although the end of the story, with its shift of scene to Maine, is not quite as strong as its beginnings, ANGEL'S REST is a solid debut novel from a promising author.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on September 1, 2006