Book review: ‘Let Me Die in His Footsteps’

Author photo of Lori Roy. Credit: Kathleen Hall
Author photo of Lori Roy. Credit: Kathleen Hall

It’s a big day for Annie Holleran. At 15 1/2, it is time for her to ascend, a ritual that involves a midnight outing where the reflection of a future husband will be revealed at the bottom of a long, dark well. Adding to the tension in the Kentucky country air is a feeling Annie has. A feeling like “a spark.”

Annie, you see, has the know-how. “It floats just above the lavender bushes, trickles from the moss hanging in the oaks, drifts like a fallen leaf down the Lone Fork River, just waiting for someone like Annie … to scoop it or snatch it or pluck it from the air.” And the know-how is telling Annie that trouble is on the horizon.

It is 1952 and life in Hayden County has been full of mysteries and omens for Annie, none of them particularly good. For one thing, she’s pretty sure her real mother isn’t the woman she calls Mama. She thinks her real mother is Aunt Juna, but no one ever talks about her because she left town all those years ago, right after she made sure Joseph Carl Baine was hung by his neck until he was dead.

No one ever talks about him either, except little girls skipping rope, chanting local lore. All the Baines are gone now, except old Cora, their mother.

And then she’s gone, too, found dead by Annie the night she goes to look in that well.

And so begins Let Me Die in His Footsteps, the third novel of Edgar Award winner Lori Roy, who serves up a mystery with a thick, rich blend of Southern Gothic mainstays, including love, death, a prevailing shadow of darkness, a twist of the supernatural and even a hint of madness.

The story goes back and forth between the 1952 third-person narration focusing on Annie and her ascension and a 1936 first-person look at Juna and her sister, Sarah, in their teenage years.

The storytelling is slow at first, and at times purposefully and wondrously confusing. Roy gradually builds the plot, carefully layering on bits of information that help the reader start to piece together the story of a family struggling to survive odd temperaments, poor choices, bad luck and a lack of options.

Questions build: Will Aunt Juna return to town now that Cora Baines is gone? Will the Baines brothers come back, too, seeking revenge for the past? And what really happened between Juna and Joseph Carl that started the Holleran/Baines feud way back in those days of the hanging?

When finally someone does return, just as Annie has feared (“When an empty rocking chair rocks, someone is coming home again and someone is going to die”), everything changes, including the tempo of the narration: A series of fast-paced reactions starts playing out that rips open old wounds and exposes family secrets and, yes, even means someone will die.

Roy presents scene upon scene upon scene, immersing the reader in the sights, smells and sounds — both big and small — of Brewerton, Ky., in a story she says is loosely inspired by the last lawful public hanging in the United States.

There are the lavender fields that have replaced tobacco: “… As Annie runs through the bushes, she stirs up a breeze of her own. Her thin cotton nightgown flutters behind and brushes against the stalks. The smell of lavender lifts in her wake.”

There is young Ryce, who rides his bike up the hill to visit Annie: “That front tire of his will be wobbling and groaning and drawing a crooked line in the soft, dry earth.”

There are disturbing moments where babies are born and broken legs set without the help of doctors, where doors slam against small hard houses and when men lose themselves in a fog of liquor.

This coming-of-age story dropped into a world of hardscrabble existence has an almost painful poignancy. Brushed hair, lipstick and hope seem especially weak agents for change in a place almost no one ever leaves. They pale in comparison to the white, shriveled bodies of dead frogs and the snake hides that wield totemic powers among the locals.

When Annie peers into the well that night, she sees nothing. Can she even imagine herself with a future, let alone actually find happiness? Maybe. But first she’ll have to convince people she didn’t kill old Cora Baines.

Let Me Die in His Footsteps

by Lori Roy

Dutton, $26.95