Publication Date: May 12, 2015
Pages: 409 pages
Summary: Based on actual events, Bottomland is the story of the murder of a young woman in Franklin, Tennessee, in the 1950s. With meticulous accuracy to time and place, it explores the social mores of the town itself and the personalities of all involved, from the townspeople, to the police, to the killers.
Told from the perspective of a 17-year-old high school senior who has just fallen in love for the first time, Bottomland reflects Franklin’s evolution from the Civil War through World War II and segregation, while chronicling the narrator’s family history and coming of age. The story unfolds over the four day period during which the the body and the perpetrators remain unidentified.
Bottomland unearths the mystery of a murder and subsequent sentencing that–while sensational in its time–is largely unknown today. (Source: Amazon product description).
Short Version: Vivid, atmospheric and highly readable.
Longer Version: Believe me, by the end of this novel I don’t think you’ll really care who killed Rosa Mary Dean.
It’s not that author Holt’s treatment of the murder and the investigative aftermath is done badly – though the roaming timeline of this piece does make the details of exactly what happened to whom and when difficult to puzzle out in places. It’s only that the murder provides a backdrop for the events of the book, not a centrepiece for it.
Our protagonist is, as explained in the synopsis, 17-year-old Henry Hall, the son of the Chief of Police involved in the case. Henry is a perfect specimen of an unreliable narrator. At face value, we see the other characters through his eyes (the pedestal on which he places his mother, his resentment of his father, whom he calls ‘Lucky’ after the cigarettes he chain smokes, and his hatred of sister Jean). But the discongruity between what these characters say and do and how he feels about them provides some wonderful moments of character development for both sides. Told at a distance of several decades, Henry’s narration grapples with his feelings about his father, Lucky, in particular. It also delves into the relationship Lucky and Henry both have with Percy, Lucky’s brother, afflicted with schizophrenia in a time period where the mentally ill seldom received more help than a padded room and a cocktail of sedatives. It’s Henry’s shifting beliefs and perceptions about the world around him that are the major drawcard for this novel, not the murder of Rosa Mary Dean.
Holt’s character-work is first-class, and his clever, authentic-sounding Southern dialogue is full of life and character. As a reader, this is paramount for me. With great characters and great dialogue, I would probably read a 400-page book about two people sitting on a sofa having a conversation about groceries. But that’s not to say Holt’s prose is in any way lacking. Beautiful, evocative descriptive passages drift through the narrative. He also has a great talent for quick, memorable character sketches, such as this description of a teenage boy on a manic bender:
He looked like a grizzly bear on a tricycle.
And this description of an undertaker who takes his job very, very seriously:
Death didn’t look near as much like itself by the time George Preston got through with it.
The book is not without its faults, though they’re relatively minor. There are a few rogue typos here and there. The lengthy afterword that traces the main characters’ lives for several decades beyond the book which, for me, didn’t really work – I would have preferred to imagine the fate of Henry and his family and friends, without having it spelled out. That’s very much a personal preference, though. There are readers who will appreciate – no, love – the care with which Trey Holt follows up on the lives of the memorable characters he created.
As a true-crime buff, I’d never heard of the real-life case this is based on before. I looked it up, and recommend anyone interested in that kind of thing do the same. Even on the WWW of 2015, there is surprisingly little on it beyond Holt’s splendid book, but what’s there makes for fascinating reading.
A very affordable and enjoyable book. I hope you enjoy.