OOF! When I first tried this one, I just could not get into it. So I put it aside, figuring I’d find something else for North Carolina’s cities… and struck out on that front. So I went back to Redemption Road, and… well, it wasn’t quite as bad as before… but it wasn’t great. I’m not convinced that Hart is as great at location settings as the reviews indicate, and I really don’t feel like I know much more about North Carolina’s cities. On the other hand, it did give us a (brief) darker look at the swamps we saw in Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting really comes alive, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are getting towards the end of our North Carolina journey (although in my quest for a book set in NC cities I keep adding new ones and putting off those on my list…).

I should say–although this may be obvious–trigger warnings for rape, abduction, murder. This was, at times, a hard read, though it wasn’t really graphic.

But there were also a number of plot holes and WTF moments–and I’m not one of those readers who’s constantly nitpicking for this kind of thing. Unless it’s glaring, I usually suspend disbelief or don’t notice. The biggest of these was the police response when the second body showed up on the altar–same ritualistic MO–and they didn’t bother to ask what the connection was–either between the victims or between the supposed killer (who’s been out of prison for less than 24 hours) and the second victim. They made a big deal of how he was connected to the first one, and how that led to his conviction, but when the second one showed up they just jumped to, “Oh! He’s out! He must have done it!” with absolutely no questions asked–like, “Why her? Why now?” or even, “Would he have had time?” Even the people on his side didn’t ask any questions–just kept insisting he didn’t do it, with no proof or reasoning. Yet somehow, “People are scared. Another woman. The same church.” So… the public immediately recognizes it as a serial killing and the police don’t?!?

I certainly hope we aren’t meant to deduce that this is the state of policing in North Carolina! But honestly, if I hadn’t read this book for this challenge, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you where it took place.

The city in Redemption Road is never named. The quote below gives a general size estimate, but it doesn’t seem to match anything in the right area. Charlotte is mentioned a number of times in ways that make it sound like it’s closer than or perhaps equidistant to Raleigh, which is the state’s capital–and isn’t mentioned once. The only other clue is that one character talks about going to Chapel Hill for parties. My guess is that it’s perhaps meant to be Winston-Salem, which is located between Chapel Hill and Charlotte, although the city in the book is about half the size.

The city was of a decent size for North Carolina, with a hundred thousand people inside the limits and twice as many spread across the county. It was still rich in places, but ten years into the downturn the cracks were starting to show. Storefronts were shuttered where none had ever been shuttered before. Broken windows went unfixed, buildings unpainted. She passed a place that used to be her favorite restaurant and saw a group of teenagers arguing on the street corner. There was more of that now, too: anger, discontent. Unemployment was twice the national average, and every year it got harder to pretend the best times weren’t in the past. That didn’t mean parts of the city weren’t beautiful—they were: the old houses and picket fences, the bronze statues that spoke of certainty and war and sacrifice. Pockets of pride remained, but even the most dignified people seemed cautious in expressing it, as if it might be dangerous, somehow, as if it might be best to keep one’s head down and wait for clearer skies.

The most clear setting descriptions we get, though, are of the swamp.

He hated it here, you see: the heat and mosquitoes, the lonesomeness and mud and life on the water. He’d be the first to tell you he was young and arrogant and wanted better things. When he spoke of it, though, he was like a poet, the words rough and ready but just … perfect. He talked of black mud, and I could smell it. I knew what rattlesnake tasted like, having never tasted it. Same with the suckers and the gars, the catfish and the bullhead.” … Elizabeth stepped in and felt water in her boots, then higher. She pulled herself up the opposite bank, and they picked their way through brambles and scrub until they reached the center of the island and the tree that dominated it. The tree was massive. Its gnarled limbs spread out, some dipping low enough to touch the ground. Age blackened the trunk, yet it rose tall and gnarled, a giant above roots so thick they buckled the earth.

This is the gritty, uncomfortable swamp we don’t really ever see in Where the Crawdads Sing, the reasons that the land was unwanted by most.

Everything was black and gray, the trees ghostly in the mist, and only the road gritty enough to be real. Everything else seemed impossible: … the cool, damp air, and hints of swamp beyond the road. … He watched the water beside them, the glimpses that were black and slick beyond the trees. … Tires hummed, and sudden ripples stirred the water. She thought it was a snake, the way it moved, or the spined back of some enormous fish. “This is an old swamp,” he said. “Half a million acres of cypress and black water, of alligators and pine and plants you won’t find anywhere else in the world. There’re small islands if you know how to find them, and families that go back three hundred years, hard people descended from escaped convicts and runaway slaves.

I was a bit surprised by the mention of alligators–North Carolina seems a bit far north, but according to the National Wildlife Federation site, the range of the American Alligator does cover all of coastal North Carolina, as well as most of the coast of Texas. (If you’re more visual, Wikipedia has a range map on its page for the American Alligator.) It was also the first indication that the water in the swamp was brackish–a mix of salt and fresh, which alligators prefer. This is something else that was never mentioned in the Delia Owens book!

Probably the most interesting aspect of John Hart’s Redemption Road for me was the way in which Elizabeth deals with her own girlhood trauma. It makes an interesting statement both about the recovery and empowerment of survivors and the possibility of redemption for perpetrators–particularly those who committed sexual assault or rape at a young age. This is something that’s been in the news lately as families on both sides deal with the fallout of the Me Too movement. A large part of me says we need to be more concerned with the survivors rather than asking how the perpetrators pick up the pieces and move on with their lives; they already have all the advantages. But, as the mother of a young boy, I also understand the tragedy of a promising future tarnished by “one mistake,” albeit an enormous one.

In the book, Elizabeth struggles with her own recovery and goes on to become a police officer in the same city where her perpetrator–who never faced any legal consequences–also lives and works. But she doesn’t allow him to forget. And, in one scene, she takes a young survivor with her, to show her how it’s done. The encounter is not earth-shattering. She greets him cordially, makes small talk, introduces the young woman as a friend, and instructs him to say hello. She meets his eyes unflinchingly, refusing to be cowed by either him or her memories; he is the one who shies away.

“You need to see how things can change. It matters. It’s important.” … In spite of what she’d said to the girl, Elizabeth felt the narrow finger of her own shame. She was a cop and a grown woman, yet even at a distance suffered the memory of his weight and the taste of pine, the heat of his finger on the back of her hand. She’d had nightmares for years, come close to killing herself from shame and self-loathing. But none of that mattered, anymore. This was about life after, about strength and will and lack of compromise. … When he was gone, Channing said, “I can’t believe you just did that.” “Was it cruel?” “Maybe.” “Should I be the only one to remember what he did?” “No. Never.” “What did you see when you looked at his face?” “Shame. Regret.” “Anything else?” “I saw fear,” Channing said. “I saw a great, giant world of fear.”

Later, we learn how this man has tried to make amends and create his own recovery.

“Six clinics. In six different cities. A decade of work. Fifty cents of every dollar I’ve ever made, and this is just the beginning.” Elizabeth looked at the [photos of] construction sites and finished buildings … Her certainty wavered. “Those are…” “Clinics for battered women.” He finished the thought when she trailed off. “Abused wives. Prostitutes. Rape victims. … I have a wife and daughters. They’re my life, Liz. I’d make yours different if I could. I’d take it all back.” Elizabeth’s confidence broke; none of this was expected. “Speaking of which…” “Hi, Daddy.” A little girl stepped in from the hall. She was three or four … “Guess who this is.” The girl pulled her legs onto her father’s lap. “This is the woman we pray for every Sunday. The one whose forgiveness we ask God to grant.” “You told your children?” “Only that Daddy did a bad thing, once, and was sorry.” He squeezed the girl harder. “Tell Detective Black your name.” “Elizabeth.” “We named her for you.” “But you run from me when I see you on the streets. You barely speak.” “Because you frighten me,” he said. “And because I am ashamed.” Elizabeth stared at the little girl. The room was still spinning. “Why would you give that beautiful child my name?” “Because some things should never be forgotten.” He smoothed the girl’s unruly hair. “Not if we hope to live better lives.”

I wonder how John Hart felt about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice. If the ultimate goal of our jurisprudence system is both to punish wrongdoing and to reduce future crimes, then men like this character represent the epitome of that goal. As this article (and a number of others I found) points out, the problem with men like Justices Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas (and even Donald Trump) is that they refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing or take any responsibility, and therefore show no remorse and have not made any real changes to their character or behavior.

Overall, as I said, I’m not sure I know much more about North Carolina now than I did before reading Redemption Road by John Hart–either its cities or its people. At the moment I’m reading Shine by Lauren Myracle, and I think it does a better job of showing the culture and attitude differences between rural and semi-urban North Carolina, as well as some of the impact of meth on communities facing economic struggles. Despite the acclaim that Hart seems to get for his settings, I wasn’t really feeling it–at least not in a way that allowed me to say, “So this is North Carolina.”