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.
Sarah Ward, Aesop Lake. Green Writers Press, 2018.
Leda Keogh's boyfriend is the bright spot in her life. Her father's death has left the family in desperate financial circumstances that have led her mother to supplement her care-giving job by selling opioids. Her older brother Keegan's minimum-wage earnings aren't much help. But David! He's a handsome senior, and he has a baseball scholarship to UCLA. His only flaw is that he is anti-gay, and frequently targets Ricky, her lab partner, and his lover Jonathan with verbal abuse. One warm May evening, knowing that David is sulking because she tried to stop him from bullying Ricky, she tries to soothe him by suggesting a late-night swim by the reservoir dam. At the dam, they come upon Jonathan and Ricky kissing each other. Furious, David calls his gay-bashing cohort MJ, who soon arrives with a shotgun "to have a little fun." Leda begs them to stop, but David snarls that if she calls the cops, he'll tell them about her mother's drug dealing. Leda stays in the truck until shots and screams make her run away, sure that somebody is hurt. She's right. Ricky goes into shock at the attack, and David and MJ yank him out of Jonathan's arms and onto the grass. They shoot at Jonathan as he dives and swims away; then they beat Ricky so seriously that he's confined to the hospital for days. The hate crime becomes a cause celebre in Mount Lincoln, the Vermont town in which the book is set.
The story is divided into three parts, each opened with an Aesop fable that puts the attack and the months following it into a larger moral and literary context. All three sections are narrated alternately by Leda and Jonathan, each shocked by the attack and burdened by guilt. Leda is deeply upset that she didn't call the police at once, but David blackmails her into giving him an alibi—and her frightened mother all but asks her to lie in court. Jonathan, who has recognized MJ and David's voices, distrusts Leda mainly because she's David's girl, but he's mainly angry at himself for his failure to leap out of the water and fight the two athletes attacking Ricky. Ward's narrative captures their mixture of anger, confusion and guilt very well in both their voices, and slowly brings the two together for an extended confrontation at Aesop Lake, where Leda has gone to be the nanny of the Woodruff family, and Jonathan, a cousin, unexpectedly visits for a week.
The event that begins to teach the two protagonists the Aesopian truths that kindness works better than harshness and that strength lies in unity is a heterosexual assault. At the July 4th party at the Woodruffs, a drunken guest follows Leda to her cabin and has pinned her down when Jonathan hears her scream and rescues her. The scene is well-described, but thematically, it's used as a turning point for Jonathan, who belatedly compensates for his self-perceived failure to rescue Ricky. The effect on Leda is minimalized. The Woodruffs comfort her, give her a day off, sympathetically offer to let her go home, and speak a few words about affidavits. Oddly, however, in a book that moves towards the court case in which Leda, Jonathan and Ricky join to testify against David, there is no suggestion that Leda's assault also might be a matter for a court, or that she might suffer lasting damage from violent attempted rape (in fact, she is thrilled to be kissed by the Woodruffs' handsome son Ollie only a few days later). The matter simply disappears, both in the book and in the discussion questions that follow it. It is possible, however, that the omission is a debut-novel problem of emphasis rather than reflection of moral assumptions, and for those who can ignore its implications, this is an important book that portrays anti-gay hate crime and its effect on bewildered, traumatized young adults in convincing detail that should recommend it to thoughtful readers of all ages.