When I first read Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy in high school, it changed my perception about what might lie beneath my small hometown; it also inspired me to visit as many pioneer cemeteries as I could. That nonfiction compendium of disturbing, odd, strange and deadly historical accounts in my state put to words the general unsettled feeling I experienced sometimes while passing crumbling barns, placid cows and lone lights across wide fields. In Cold Blood, the Truman Capote classic, gets this, too, of course. In film, the Coen Bros. Fargo, too, explores the greed, madness and violence beneath the calm, tight-lipped exterior assigned to the broad swath of land known as the Midwest. Things might seem fine – everyone might say it is – but they are definitely, absolutely not. But don’t tell anyone I told you so. Would you like some pie?
Bent Road by Lori Roy gets to this unsettled Midwest sensibility right away with a too-fast car flying down country roads. In the car are Celia Scott and her three children (Elaine, Daniel and Evie), who are returning to husband/father Arthur’s homeland after 20 years in Detroit. It is 1967. Arthur is driving the truck and is ahead of them. But the road is dark.
In the Scott’s extended family, a mystery surrounds an unexplained, unsolved death shortly before Arthur left, and all this ties back to current events and unearthed suspicions when something similarly traumatic happens in the town. Ultimately, Bent Road is a story about family silence and the lies and webs of connection that grow from trauma and distrust. Someone did something, and you’re pretty sure who the whole time, but you don’t know the whys or hows because no one will break the silence or ask the questions (at least not the right way). It’s heartwrenching and exhausting to read, and I couldn’t put it down. This is the kind of novel you stay up ’til 2 a.m. to finish and then just have extra coffee in the morning. Just the way I like it.
The book won an Edgar Allen Poe award in 2010, so it clearly comes with accolades. I recommend it to readers who appreciate a mystery that is as much about cultural expectations and tendencies that impact family systems as it is about the actual story. This story could only have unfolded the way it did if were set in that place; the quiet night of a big, treeless sky lends itself to wonder and worry. In Bent Road, Lori Roy unhinges the protected, stoic face of the prairie Midwest, revealing the lengths we go to protect a secret and what shame in secrets does to people. It’s as much about the story — a suspenseful family history with a bit of a whodunit – as it is about the place; back roads like the ones I grew up on are as much a foreboding figure as the shadows outside.
And there are shadows everywhere.
Jenny Rose Ryan is a writer, editor, marathoner, mother, gardener and a whole lot of other things. She has written for BUST, Bitch, xoJane, Persephone and other publications both famous and obscure. See her garden and house projects at diywarbox.tumblr.com. Everything else is a secret — after all, she grew up in the Midwest.