BENT ROAD Lori Roy Dutton 2011 $25.95, 354 pages
“Bent Road,” Lori Roy’s first novel, is a suspense story that takes place in rural Kansas. Roy is no stranger to Kansas — or to this area. As a teenager, Lori Harold, she graduated in 1983 from Manhattan High School and later graduated from Kansas State University.
Lori Roy the author paints a multifaceted picture of a small-town in Kansas; the warmth and the work ethic are easily recognizable, but her town has a dark side.
Arthur Scott, his wife, Celia, and their three children — teenager Elaine, son Davie and daughter Evie — lived in Detroit in the 1960s. When racial tensions escalate, Arthur decided to move back to his hometown in Kansas to a more predictable way of life. Arthur had left his home near Hays almost 20 years earlier, after his older sister, Eve, was killed. Arthur never told his wife the details of Eve’s death, but she knows it weighs heavily on his heart. She also wonders about the rift between Arthur and his father, a rift that was wide enough that Arthur didn’t return to Kansas when his father died. Arthur’s mother still lives on Bent Road, however, and his sister Ruth and her husband, Ray, live nearby.
Arthur and Celia haven’t seen them since leaving years ago. And the life they come back to in Kansas isn’t what they expected. When the Scotts settle in on a farm, they learn that when Ray gets drunk — which occurs frequently — he beats Ruth. Arthur and Celia won’t stand for it, so Ruth comes to live with them. But, Ray isn’t happy with this arrangement at all, and neither is the local priest, who regards marriage as a commitment for life — no matter how bad a commitment it might be.
Meanwhile, Celia misses Detroit; she prefers the city and is not prepared for farm life. Elaine, however, settles right in and soon starts dating a local boy. Davie doesn’t have many friends at school except a boy named Ian, who is handicapped. Ian introduces Davie to guns and hunting. As for Evie, she becomes mesmerized by her dead namesake, Eve. Evie begins to wear Eve’s old clothes and says her dead aunt is talking to her.
Then Julianne Robison, the only child of neighbors, goes missing. Townspeople think it was Ray who killed Julianne; after all, he was a prime suspect in Eve’s death long ago. Back then, Ray was dating Eve and they were supposed to get married, but instead, he married her sister Ruth.
Under the author’s guidance, a landscape of life in rural Kansas unfolds, complete with howling winds, farm animals and tasty casseroles. The town is populated by well-drawn characters whom the reader hopes aren’t as dark as they sometimes seem. The characters draw the reader into their lives and then the suspense takes over. Suffice it to say there are a few bends of the road in “Bent Road.”
Roy started out as an accountant, but fortunately, for the reader, turned to writing. “Bent Road” was named a 2011 New York Times Notable Crime Book and has been named one of five finalists for best first novel by an American author; both honors that are well deserved. “Bent Road” is a good tale on familiar turf, and Roy’s plot and deft writing style will leave readers looking forward to further books. She now lives in Florida.
Maggie Braun is a teacher at Manhattan High School.