It was in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that he famously said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s those unhappy families – and particularly those spanning multiple generations – whose stories are so often told. In the case of Lori Roy’s upcoming novel, Let Me Die in His Footsteps, the lives of several families have been haunted by events from sixteen years earlier. But while no ones spoken about those events in more than whispers or rumors, they’re about to be resurrected and dealt with once and for all.
In 1936, Joseph Carl Baine was the last man in Kentucky to die by lawful public hanging. Sixteen years later, the legend surrounding Juna Crowley and the role she played in his death has only grown. Annie Holleran knows that she makes people nervous because her Aunt Juna isn’t really her aunt, but rather her mother and that she might have the same evil in her that everyone says Juna had. As Annie comes of age, old Mrs. Baine dies and one of her sons returns, dragging the events of the past into the present in ways that disrupt life in the Holleran house and beyond.
The narrative is split between following Annie in 1952 and Sarah, her mother, in 1936. While Annie’s portions are told in the third person, Sarah’s are told in the first person. I found the beginning few chapters to be slow going. I understand why the explanation of a girl’s ascension and the tradition of looking into a well at midnight to see her future husband was used to start the book – and it comes back a great deal throughout the novel as a source of tension between Sarah and Juna in the past as well Annie and her sister, Charlotte, in the present – but I found it a tedious beginning. While it was an effective means of mirroring and bringing the narrative full circle by the end, it began to feel like a crutch and simply another way for drawing out a tale that could only carry so many surprises given the story being told and the nature of the narrative’s setup.
The strength of the novel lies in the complicated relationships Annie has with her parents as their past and the circumstances of Joseph Carl’s hanging are slowly unfolded for the reader. She knows more of the truth than they realize but there are still quite a few missing pieces that will help her put to rest her fears about the evil of Aunt Juna living on in her. Though I generally don’t care for first person narratives, Sarah’s chapters were the ones I found most engaging. The 1952 half of the story felt more deliberately drawn out, the tension more forced, and just a means of delaying the major revelations set in 1936. With so much build-up and such heavy hinting, the revelations themselves were less than surprising (though there were one or two smaller elements that proved unexpected). The final resolutions were satisfactory, the characters and their relationships were engaging, and the story itself was compelling; it was just a bit long-winded.
Lori Roy’s Let Me Die in His Footsteps will be available for purchase June 2, 2015.