A Slant of Light by Jeffrey Lent
Malcolm Hopeton has done his duty – more than his duty even – losing a thumb at Antietam in 1862. Returning home to his farm after serving a full four years in the Union army, he discovers that his wife has run off with a local ne’re do well. They have sold off the livestock and cleared out most of the furniture, reducing Hopeton to near penury. He kills Bethany and Amos Wheeler. He never denies that he did so and is locked up awaiting trial and hanging.
So begins an epic soap opera in which the writing elevates the lurid details into an elegant psychological drama. There are many threads weaving their way into the tale—religion (a cult even), sex, murder, fraud, theft, a conniving attorney, a judicious judge. Lent weaves these elements into an engrossing story that grabs the reader’s attention from A Slant of Light‘s first page and sustains it to the end.
There is no doubt that Hopeton has committed the murders. The motive seems clear to all the neighbors. Retribution for a philandering wife and the man who betrayed the trust placed in him is obvious. But the back story is the promoting force. Did Bethany cheat just for the sake of lust or was there some other motivating force? Why did Amos steal the livestock and remove the furniture? What in his familial history may have caused him to cuckold and betray a man who had done nothing but good for him?
Of course, the plot thickens as it must in any good soap opera. August Swartout is a nearby farmer whose wife Narcissa died in still birth to twins. He hires a young woman to cook and clean for him, and they are soon joined by her brother Harlan who was the hired man for Hopeton. Harlan is loyal to Hopeton and knows things and wants to ensure that the judge knows there were reasons why Bethany took up with Amos and why Hopeton was justified in doing what he did.
Lent creates a fully developed, realistic world in which these characters live and work. We know them and come to understand what moves them forward while bits and pieces of their stories are revealed in the narrative and flashbacks. Lent’s description of the elements of 19th century farming and its terminology are just right, elements which were still prevalent in the rural South a hundred years later—Bill mule, hames, harrow, evener, democrat wagon. The never-ending toil of preparing fields, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and starting over year after year are the warp around which the story is woven, the seasons being an integral part.
The story is compelling, the writing sophisticated, the language carefully chosen to reflect the time and place. The images capture the fundamental lives of people who recognize, for example, that the fading of the sun reveals a “bat- and swallow-riven dusk.” A Slant of Light is a story of the land and its people, their love and loss, war on the grand scale and on a more personal level, theft and revenge.
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