The Cutting Season, Attica Locke
In the first chapter of The Cutting Season, maintenance workers discover the body of a young woman on the grounds of Belle Vie, a historic plantation on the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge. Caren Grey, the manager of the site, calls the police, whose investigation quickly centers on one of her employees, a young black man named Donovan Isaacs, who has already had some brushes with the law. The victim is identified as Inés Avalo, one of migrants working in the sugarcane fields that border Belle Vie, part of the Groveland Corporation, an expanding agribusiness. For centuries, cane has been the major crop on this land. Before the Civil War, slaves from Belle Vie cultivated and cut the cane. Few of Caren's staff know that her ancestors were among them, including a man named Jason who remained after emancipation to work for wages. Nor do they know that Caren herself grew up at Belle Vie, where her mother Helen cooked the food for the weddings and parties held on the grounds. Like her mother, Caren is a single mother with a daughter, living on the site.
I initially put this book on my library list after reading Teresa's review on Shelf Love. I had to wait a while for my turn, and when I finally got to reading it I wasn't even half-way through before I went looking for my own copy. I found this book compelling on several levels. I can't remember when I've read a book with such a vivid setting, so richly evoked. Belle Vie itself is practically a character in the story. Over the course of the book, we follow Caren into every corner of it (on the endpapers is a lovely map by Laura Hartman Maestro, who also does the fantastic maps in Deborah Crombie's novels). I could see Belle Vie so clearly, hear the Mississippi flowing past the levee on the north front, feel the humidity pressing down, smell the magnolias that line the winding paths between the old buildings. When I was a child my family lived in Georgia, and whenever relatives came to visit we toured them around every historic site within driving distance, which meant we saw a lot of places like Belle Vie. That vivid sense of place might also come partly from geography, since Houston, with its transplanted Cajuns and Creole populations, is just a short drive from the Louisiana border, and I have spent time there as well.
I found Caren a very interesting character, complex in ways that felt real and authentic. She is introduced on the first page, and the story is told solely from her point of view, but only gradually is her own story revealed. In her first interview with the police, uncomfortable with the two detectives, she chooses not to tell them her connection with Belle Vie. In the days that follow, she hears things, makes discoveries, one involving her daughter. Most of what she learns she also withholds from the police, frustrated by their easy assumption of Donovan's guilt and afraid for her daughter. Through Attica Locke's skillful characterization, I understood why Caren makes the choices she does, while disagreeing with some of them (I also understand how my perspective differs from hers).
Though the discovery of Inés Avalo's body sets the story in motion, and much of it focuses on finding her killer, this is not simply about her death. Nor is hers the only mystery. While the police investigation drags on, Caren learns more about her ancestor Jason, whose disappeared from the plantation in 1872 drew the attention of the parish's new sheriff, an African American elected during Reconstruction. Do Belle Vie's archives hold the answer to that mystery? (Any story involving realistic research in an archives gets bonus points from me.) I have to admit, I completely fell for the large red herrings that Locke introduces into the story, so that the solution to the mysteries caught me off-guard, as usual.
In addition to the police investigation, Caren must deal with rumors that the plantation will be sold to Groveland, its historic sites razed and the land turned into yet more cane fields. (Belle Vie is apparently not a listed historic site, which seems a bit odd but is necessary for the plot.) Locals are already concerned about Groveland's impact, as it buys up family farms, and there are rising tensions over the migrants, largely Mexican, working its fields. There is also a political angle, as Raymond Clancy, the older son of the plantation's owner, considers running for office. A murder on the grounds isn't just a tragedy, it's bad publicity. But supporting an important industry like sugar could help his campaign, broaden his appeal across the state, attract funding. And though the Clancys only acquired Belle Vie after the Civil War, and therefore never owned the slaves that worked its fields, it is still a legacy and a liability that Raymond would like to escape.
This story is a story very much of our times, and it drew me in deep. Long after I turned the last page, I am still wondering about what happened to Caren and the other characters, and hoping that somewhere Belle Vie still stands.