Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines. Aunt Juna was the start of all the hatred between the families, and even though she’s been gone a good many years, the hatred has stayed put.
On a dark Kentucky night in 1952, exactly halfway between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, Annie Holleran crosses over into forbidden territory. It’s been that way since Joseph Carl Baine was hanged in 1936. But local superstition says that tonight Annie can see her future in the Baines’ well.
Lori Roy had both of her first two thrillers shortlisted for the prestigious Edgar Allen Poe Award, the first, Bent Road, won the award for best Debut Novel. In Let Me Die In His Footsteps she brings that thriller sensibility to the reimagining of a historical event – the last judicial hanging in the United States in rural Kentucky. The novel is best described as loosely inspired by this event as many of the details have been altered.
It is 1952 and Annie Holleran is fifteen and a half. This is the age at which the girls of Kentucky “ascend” and become women. On the night on which they turn fifteen and a half, tradition has it that if she looks into a well, Annie will see the man she is to marry. Annie chooses to look into the well of the neighbouring Baines property, a place she has been warned off. Sixteen years before, an incident involving her mother’s family led to the hanging of one of the Baines in an incident that still echoes through the area.
Roy’s narrative alternates between Annie’s slow uncovering of family and community secrets and the first person narrative of Sarah Holleran, Annie’s adopted mother, from back in 1936. Sarah’s narrative charts the events leading up to the hanging of Joseph Carl Baines, accused of killing her brother and molesting her sister Juna. There is clearly something deeply wrong with the case against Joseph Carl Baines, but the drive of the community for justice and some sort of closure against their better judgements, leads him to the scaffold. Roy carefully doles out the revelations both before and after the event, twisting both reader and character expectations.
There’s a little bit of American Gothic here too. Roy weaves in a strain of homespun mysticism as Annie and her Grandmother share the “know-how”, a way of knowing when things are going to happen. The action takes place on a former tobacco farm, the tobacco ploughed up and replaced by a crop of lavender. Roy evokes this landscape so clearly that the smell of lavender almost comes off the page.
Let Me Die in His Footsteps is not a crime novel in the traditional sense but it has crime and a deep mystery at its core and plenty of crime to go round. The revelations, when they come, bring understanding but do not necessarily bring the closure that either the community or the reader might want. This is a beautiful, disturbing and insightful novel from a writer who continues to impress.