A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors
Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.
Simone St. James, The Broken Girls. Penguin Random House, 2018
Idlewild Hall, a deserted girls' boarding school just outside the small Vermont town of Barrons, was known to be haunted long before it closed in 1979. Later, it became known as the place where police found the corpse of Deb Sheridan, dumped on the school's overgrown athletic field by her murderer. Deb's journalist sister Fiona hasn't ever been able to put the murder (or the school) behind her, even though Deb's boyfriend, the convicted killer, has been incarcerated for twenty years. So when Fiona finds that a rich widow has bought Idlewild Hall and plans to renovate it, she decides to do a story on it. While she tours the decayed school, uneasy at its creepy atmosphere, contractors working on an old well make a horrifying discovery. Soon, she finds one of the school's retired teachers – and she hears that the school was always horrifying: "It was a hard place. An awful place. We were all so horribly afraid."
That's half the plot, set in 2014. The other half is set at Idlewild in late 1950. It's a throwaway school where parents send the illegitimate, the hard to handle, the damaged. Its curriculum is never changed, and neither are the text books, in which generations of girls have written homework assignments – and sightings of the ghost of Mary Hand, dressed in black with a black veil. Mary Hand, Mary Hand, dead and buried under land .... Sometimes she begs to come in out of the cold. Sometimes she just appears. Or scratches a message on a window pane. Four fifteen year old roommates become increasingly interested in her, and increasingly interested in getting out of the school. Then one of them mysteriously disappears.
Interchanging chapters about events in 1950 and 2014, St. James gradually builds suspense as Fiona's research interweaves her sister's murder with the four teenagers' observations. The plot skillfully blends the history of the school, the sighting of ghosts whose existence nobody (including the most skeptical reader) doubts, and a history of small-town corruption that has been kept under wraps for twenty years. Uncovering corruption is even more dangerous than uncovering ghosts, and as Fiona comes closer to the truth she seeks about her sister, she risks the kind of disappearance that has plagued Idlewild Hall before. As for Mary Hand, her sightings are eerily connected to real memories and real dangers, and her ghost can be laid to rest only by revealing the truth about girls who are destroyed or thrown away by people who have power over them.
A listing of other reviews can be found here.