Friday, June 12, 2020

Big Lies in a Small Town

 Big Lies in a Small Town
Author:  Diane Chamberlain
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2020. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1250087333 / 978-1250087331

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The children knew it was finally spring, so although the air still held the nip of winter and the grass and weeds crunched beneath their feet, they ran through the field and woods, yipping with the anticipation of warmer weather."

Favorite Quote:  "Perhaps now that she'd told the story, it would lose its power over her. She hoped she would never have to repeat it to anyone ever again."

In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration ran a competition through the Section of Painting and Sculpture in the Treasury Department for artists to produce work to be displayed in government buildings where all would have access to it. Many of the designated buildings were post offices being constructed. (See also The Truth According to Us, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, and The Giver of Stars for other book set around the history of the Works Progress Administration.) This program is the historical context for this book.

Anna Dale, from New Jersey, is one of the artists selected to paint a mural for a post office. However, her original sketch to go in a New Jersey post office does not happen. Instead, she is reassigned to design one for the post office in the small town of Edenton, North Carolina. She travels there to learn about the town, so as to be able to capture its essence. She meets with both welcome and resentment - for being a woman, for being an outside, for beating out a home town boy in the competition, and for breaking the social norms of Edenton culture.

Decades later, Morgan Christopher is a former art student currently in prison. A woman offers a way out of prison only if she agrees to restore a mural in time for the opening of a gallery in Edenton. Morgan jumps at this second chance even though she has no connection to this woman, no connection to Edenton, and no knowledge of art restoration.

In this way, an artist - Jesse - unites these women across decades. The book goes back and forth between Anna and Morgan. Anna's story is hers. Morgan's story is the slow discovery of Anna's story through the oddities discovered as she restores the painting. Morgan's story is also of her redemption and the discovery of a path forward for her life beyond her incarceration and the accident that led to it.

The story does have some loose ends. Anna's story has themes of mental illness and its possible hereditary factors. Anna is referred to as the artist may went crazy in many different ways throughout the book. Her mother suffered from mental illness. The reasons for Anna's behavior are ultimately explained, but the correlations and differences between mental illness and a trauma response are never clarified.

Edenton, North Carolina in the 1940s brings forth the story of a male-dominated culture and of segregation and racisms. Both of those remain the background for this story is about Anna and Morgan, both of whom are on the periphery of this culture. The element of racism particularly seems muted in this book given the historical facts of the time and place. Given the conversations around the world still taking place, I wish more of that reality had been depicted.

The story is slow to build, but there is an "aha" moment when it comes together. In that way, it mirrors the mural itself. The cleaning and restoration process is painstakingly slow, but the painting reveals its secrets in many "aha" moments.

The ending brings everything together in a neat package. Life is not that neat, but the book does keep me reading until the very last page to see every connection. In fact, I turn the last page to see if there is more. The characters come to life, and I want to know what happens next. That, for me, is the sign of a great read.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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