"I'd never say it out loud, and even admitting it to myself gives me chills, but if I could have a fiddle made of my daddy's bones, I'd take it. I'd take it and play it and learn all the secrets he kept, all the sorrows he bore inside his breast."
'Ghost Wood Song' by Erica Waters is a story that unfolds in one of those beautifully, unearthly atmospheric settings. Even before we start to learn about Shady Grove, the girl named after an old bluegrass song that her late father played for her growing up, the tale comes across like an eerie dreamscape.
Early on, it's not even necessarily the family's ability to call ghosts to them, using a fiddle said to belong to their family for generations. As I was reading, I kept getting a sense of a dark misty thicket.. nestled somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. And though the music they played centered around old bluegrass numbers, my mind kept conjuring images of 'Cross Road Blues' and deals that can only end badly. My thoughts were not related to the story directly, but the writer's way with the weight of words, still injected them into the feeling I got from the book.
"My family history -- everything we've lost, all our ghosts and all our griefs -- those feel like the truest part of me, the beating heart of my music. Playing Sarah's way is like taking an ax to my deepest, most secret roots."
Shady is a deeply complex girl, shrouded in poor, rural stereotypes. She lives in a trailer at the edges of town with her mama, her brother Jesse, little sister Honey, and her stepdad.. Jim. Her mom is the traditional type.. at home taking care of Honey or worrying about having dinner on for her husband Jim, who's the typical loud, kind of mean-spirited man of the house. Jesse is rebellious, full of anger.. especially towards their stepdad, but he's extremely protective of Shady, even though he's kind of a jerk to her sometimes too. He's carrying a lot of baggage and you can really see it on him like a second skin.
It's interesting that though Waters uses the kind of stereotypes one might expect in a story like this, she doesn't rely on them. They're just a framework from which the real depth of each character grows and changes, seemingly before our eyes as we begin to see beneath the veneer. All of the characters that have any real focus in the story, are richly painted, each layer laid bare for the reader to see.
There's a love triangle between Shady, her best friend Sarah, and this 'rodeo boy' as she calls him, named Cedar. Sometimes these can become too heavy for the story or too convoluted, redirecting attention that should be on the plot to what choices are going to be made, but it's just more of a soft exploration of what she really wants. Somebody steady who steps up and puts their cards all on the table.. or someone who seems to be incredibly uncertain, warm one moment and cold the next. The result is lovely and though as often happens in these cases, Shady is a little slow to commit, what I like is that at least there's an honesty about it. She's sincere and she's open about her struggle and she tries to do her best not to drag it out any longer than she has to.
"I know how powerful grief is. I've felt it pound through my body like ocean waves, leaving me half-drowned."
When Shady's brother is accused of murder and her family is thrown into chaos, she has to dig up long buried family secrets in an attempt to save him. She has to figure out how to ferret those secrets out of the dead.
I genuinely loved this book. I absolutely fell for Shady and Cedar. I loved and hated right along side her. The secrets are deep within the roots of the family and they've grown toxic, affecting everything they touch. There are a lot of references to old bluegrass songs and poems strewn throughout the novel, effective catalysts to help nudge you in the right direction emotionally to really hear the story the author's telling. In fact, I listened to some of those songs, read some of those poems and their stories as well.. as I made my way through the carefully lined path the author offers up.
If there's anything at all that I feel Waters could have done better, it's the origin of the fiddle. It's not that how it came to be isn't good enough, quite the opposite. Rather, the origin is really good.. but to equal the power of the story she's woven here, the presentation was not as impactful as it could have been. When its story is told, it's a bit more casual than I expected. It's good.. but it could have been great.
This debut is not to be missed. Erica Waters is going to do amazing things in her writing career.. and you are going to want to be there to witness them. 'Ghost Wood Song' is easily one of the best reads of the year.