When a book begins in 1961, in George County, Mississippi, with a description of poor, white sixteen-year old Hezeikiah Sheehand carrying his five year old mentally and physically crippled brother named Yellababy strapped on his back and headed for "Chalktown," I was pretty much guaranteed that what I was about to read was not gonna be pretty --- but was definitely gonna be a good read.
Melinda Haynes's Chalktown resonates with memorable characters, singular occurrences, and a setting delivering a story dictated by poverty, ignorance, and boredom.
Chalktown, a small community in George County, Mississippi, sits off the highway and its inhabitants live in shabby houses and make their meager livings sharecropping. A few of the residents eek it out by salvaging old clothes, or in one case, leftover furniture from a burned out schoolhouse -- bent,rusted school desks and tables and broken chalkboards.
After an itinerant preacher spent a few days serving the good word (including God's promise to an unmarried and very pregnant teenage girl that "the man she lay with" would return -- as he said, "'cause them is not my words, but His'") and sitting nightly at a table for a home cooked meal, several residents of Chalktown, encouraged by salvation and redemption, believed their lives would be changed: "Maybe darkness is not forever ... maybe there's somethin out there that is bigger than darkness."
When the preacher left with "His" promises in the air, not a week passes before a brutal murder occurs. The town goes silent, and each resident sets up a salvaged chalk board and communication between them, scrawled in chalk ...the messages as cryptic and as varied as the residents who write them:
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"
"You wuz sleepwalkin again. Round 2 in the am"
"and a little child shall leed them"
"Nobody seen it but me"
"Go in and let it pass"
As Hezeikiah and Yellababy head for Chalktown, their father, Fairy, riddled with cancer, their mother, Susan Blair, crazy with guilt and boredom, worry about daughter Arena who has just spent the night out with a "city" man.
In addition to these characters are many others, well crafted and believable, but another stronger aspect holds this book together -- Haynes's language - as one critic put it "devastatingly beautiful."
Marion Calhuon, neighbor of the Sheehans, develops a familial concern for both Hezeikiah and Yellababy, and spends a lot of time watching the Sheehans make a mess of their lives. Called upon more than once to rescue them from one debacle or another, he tries to live aloof and unmoved by them since he learned a hard and bitter lesson fifteen years before. Calhoun wished to ask a local girl to marry him :
"He had thrown open the wide doors to the barn, chugged inside on his tractor, leaving time and obligation and routine waiting outside in the sun, stunned by being preempted by a thing as precarious as love."
When his dream was thwarted by her love for another, Calhoun muses, "There had been expectation and hope and longing and love. Precarious entanglements would shadow him forever."
Haynes's characters are large -- each of them unique, afflicted, and fighting their demons... and as the novel reaches its end, together --- with a violence worthy of Faulkner and comments on spirituality reminiscent of O'Connor.
I liked it, but it's an English teacher's book. :)