Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

7948230 (2)Some books seem to come from a place of planning, plotting, and editing, and others seem inspired. Happily, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin, is one of the latter. From the first page of this southern-gothic-noir novel, I was smiling to myself with the pleasure of finding a really good story. And as the novel progressed, I found myself caring deeply about the characters, and ultimately, feeling very satisfied with the resolution. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, is a story of prejudice, cruelty, poverty, and the way that rumor can destroy lives in a small community. But it is also a story of progress, and of how the devastation of the past can be healed. In that way, it is a story that is personal to the main characters, but also contains a message of hope regarding the larger issues of injustice and racism that are part of the history of the United States.

When Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter begins, we are introduced to Larry Ott, a poor white man who lives alone in his family’s farmhouse in rural Mississippi. His father is dead, his mother is in a nursing home. Larry tends their home carefully and lightly, keeping it simple and clean, watching the TV shows that his parents would have watched, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken for his meals, and spending his free time alone reading. Larry is the town outcast, in the tradition of Harper Lee’s Boo Radley. Twenty five years ago, when he was in high school, he was accused of murdering a neighboring girl named Cindy. Her body has never been found, and although Larry has consistently protested his innocence, in the eyes of the community, he is a probable rapist and murderer.   The other main character is Silas, or “32,” the black town constable, and Larry’s one-time friend for three months before the disappearance of Cindy occurred. When the story begins, another teenaged girl has gone missing, and the community suspects that after 25 years, Larry has committed another murder. Larry arrives home from work early one afternoon and encounters a man in a zombie mask in his living room. The man shoots Larry at close range in the chest.   These violent events are the impetus for Larry, Silas, and the community to begin to investigate the past.

The story alternates between the present, and the events that took place during Larry and Silas’s brief friendship 25 years before.  As the reader, we want to know whether Larry was guilty of murder, and why he and Silas stopped being friends. And in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, we do find out the answers to the mystery of what really happened 25 years before.   But even more satisfying and addictive than this is the way in which Tom Franklin creates characters who we care deeply about. Larry’s ostracism by the community, his loneliness, and his yearning for friendship, are heartbreaking.  Silas’s struggle with his guilt over letting down his one-time friend, and his battle to find the courage to make the past right, are compelling. Both main characters are imperfect, and do things that make the reader cringe. But at the same time, they are deeply human. In them, we see our own frailties, our own need to be accepted, to be understood, to be loved.

Franklin, who lives in Mississippi himself, tackles the issue of racism with courage and the gravity that it deserves. I found this novel especially fascinating, because I went to college in the South.  In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin writes about race relations in the present-day South in a way which rings true to the experience I had of it while I was there. In this way, I think that a story can sometimes be more powerful in helping people understand an issue than a lecture or logical explanation.  So I would recommend Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter as a novel which is helpful to understanding race relations in the South over the past 30 years.  In this way, without being didactic or punitive, I think the story is an important contribution to the understanding of how far we have come, and how much farther we need to go as a nation. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter looks unflinchingly at difficult and complex issues. But in the end, it proposes that our shared history binds us together more firmly than it pulls us apart. Above all, Silas and Larry’s story shows that forgiveness and healing is possible, even when horrible things have occurred in the past. Without being saccharine, the novel leaves the reader with a sense of joy. In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin shares with us a South that he clearly loves, and that he believes has progressed and will continue to progress in the future.

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