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Friday, August 27, 2010

Master of the Delta, by Thomas H. Cook ($13.95)

Jean picked this book as one of last year's top books, but it took me this long to get around to reading it.

Cook gets me every time. Pulls the wool over my eyes, the chair out from under me, and the rug out from under my feet. As I read it, I think I know where Thomas H. Cook is taking his story, but it never goes there. Even when I know he will twist away from what I think the story is about -- even when I KNOW that -- it turns even further away, and I'm fooled once again.

Cook is the Master of the Southern Tragedy. Ominous notes ring throughout the book, sounding louder as he slowly reveals the victim and the perpetrator. He is the master of using the present to look at the past. We know right from the start that the narrator, Jack Branch, testified at a trial in the 1950s. Is he testifying as the accused? The layers must slowly peel away before Jack's part is revealed. Perhaps Cook is the Master of the Southern Onion.

Jack is the youngest member of one of the old aristocratic families of the Louisiana Delta. There are privileges accorded to such members. They are beyond reproach and sometimes beyond the law. His aristocracy notwithstanding, Jack has chosen to become a teacher at the local public high school. He teaches students who come from "The Bridges," the white trash area of town. One of his students, Eddie Miller, is the son of a convicted murderer. In Jack's class, Eddie uses a class assignment to write about his own father.

As much as Jack is a product of a sheltered, privileged upbringing, he believes himself to be without class prejudice. His dream is to save a student, to open up a world of possibilities to the poor young man, in the best Dickensian way. Eddie is that poor young man. And if he isn't a "poor young man" when Jack starts to mentor him, he soon will be, thanks to Jack. Eventually, Jack's family's history becomes entangled in Eddie's tale, and Eddie becomes involved with Jack's fragile father.

Things go downhill, then uphill, then downhill again. Roller coaster, Cook style. A well-written roller coaster.

And for the longest time, Cook doesn't even tell us what the crime is. We just listen to the ominous bell tolling for someone.

Cook is the master of the southern onion and suspense.

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