Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cutting Loose

As I wrote last week, I heard readings from her latest novel, The Cutting Season, by award winning author Attica Locke, and immediately bought the book and had it autographed. 

The book more than lived up to the promise of the excerpts the author read. The genre is that of a murder mystery, and I love murder mysteries, but the book reads more like a novel in which the mystery, while well written and satisfactorily solved, serves as a plot device to develop the characters and themes. 

The main character is a Louisiana woman, Caren Gray, the descendant of slaves who has come to work as the manager of a plantation where her ancestors worked both as slaves and as free paid workers. The plantation, Belle Vie, passed into the hands of the Clancy family after the Civil War and at the time the book opens, has been run as a historical site and venue for weddings and parties for two generations.

Caren herself grew up on the plantation because her mother worked there as a cook. We learn as the book develops why Caren left the plantation, why she argued with her mother and was estranged from her at her death, and why she came back to live and work as the plantations’s manager. Caren’s fractured relationship with her mother is one, in my eyes the main one, of several relationships at the heart of the book. 

First and most important are the personal relationships. In addition to Caren’s relationship with her late mother, revealed in flashbacks, there is Caren’s relationship with her own daughter, which, as we learn in the first scene with the two of them together, is beginning to experience some strain. Morgan wants to attend her father’s upcoming wedding, and Caren has put off buying her a plane ticket. Eventually this leads to us learning about both Caren’s and Morgan’s relationship with Morgan’s father. Finally, there is Caren’s childhood relationship with the younger son of the Clancy family, Bobby, which ends when they both reach puberty.

There are also the wider relationships: Caren’s relationship with her employer and with the employees she manages. Her employees, as it turns out, view her as something of an outsider and protect her from information about what is going on at the plantation, even when that information involves her own daughter. Her employer, the older Clancy son Raymond, hints from time to time that he views her as a charity case who owes something to his family. 

Both Caren’s friendship with Bobby and professional relationship with Raymond are part of the book's treatment of the relationship between the white members of society and the black ones.  But there is a new racial conflict brewing between the black workers and the new migrant workers coming in from Mexico and Central America to work the jobs in the fields for lower wages.

Finally there are the geographical relationships. Both Caren and the Clancy brothers view Belle Vie as home, but the differences in the way they do so further develops the treatment of the relationship between races as well as explaining more about Caren’s relationship with both her mother and daughter. Additionally, there is the relationship between the plantation and the cane fields beyond.

When Caren finds the body of a dead migrant worker on the plantation grounds, all these relationships come into play. Caren has reason to believe her daughter knows something about the murder, and calls the child’s father, who takes it on himself to come down to Louisiana from Washington, DC to see for himself what is going on.  An even older mystery, about the disappearance of one of Caren’s ancestor’s known as Jason, becomes significant in looking at the recent one. An unsatisfactory employee whom Caren had been about to fire becomes a suspect in the murder investigation. The secrets the plantation workers are keeping finally come to light and with information obtained by a journalist who is writing a story on the labor practices of the company that owns the cane fields, eventually lead to the killer.

The real resolution to the story, however, in my mind at least, takes place in Caren’s evolving relationships with her daughter, her daughter’s father, and the Clancy family. The book has not so much a happy ending as a hopeful one, as Caren is able to let go of some of the guilt over her estrangement from her mother and some of the control she keeps over her daughter, and to cut loose from Belle Vie and consider moving away from Louisiana. Yet for those who are fans of pure whodunits, this book works well, too, with the solution being enough of a surprise to keep the reader puzzled but not so much of one as to seem like something that would only happen in a book.

So thank you, Attica Locke, for such a wonderful addition to my library and I hope to the libraries of my readers as well.

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