Thursday, May 26, 2016

White Crosses

White CrossesWhite Crosses by Larry Watson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

As a native Montanan, I know all about the white crosses that are placed by the side of the road to mark traffic fatalities. So I was intrigued by a book that uses these crosses and the fatalities thereof as the main plot device. I wish I could say that the book was as good as the premise, but it was not. The ending was horrible, and did not fit with the rest of the book. It ruined the entire book for me.

The story takes place in a fictional eastern Montana town, and is set in 1957. Sheriff Jack Nevelsen receives a call about a fatal wreck just outside of town. When he discovers that those who died were the high school principal and a girl, June, who just graduated, he decides that he has to cover up the true story of them running off together. He convinces the principal’s son to say that it was he and June who were eloping, and his dad was merely driving her out of town to a rendezvous point. Jack also spreads the story himself, by telling it to some of the local gossips. His motivation for doing so is to preserve the morality of the town - to protect its citizens from the uncertainty and fear that would arise if they felt that high school girls were not safe from older predators. He is trying to keep his town “safe” in its innocence. The rest of the book is the playing out of this rumor, and how Jack fears its unraveling.

Most of the book is spent inside of Jack’s head, as he ponders what he’s done - which is against his usual truthful nature. We learn of his past, growing up in town, and we see his insecurities and how they influence his actions. We also see his growing attraction for the principal’s widow, despite his own marriage. We also get a good feel for the town and its residents. And while I got a little tired of Jack’s endless worrying and indecision, the author does a very good job of describing life in small-town Montana. The characters are diverse and interesting, and fit the locale well, and the descriptions of the weather and scenery capture eastern Montana well.

The big crisis of the book appears near the end, when Jack must decide if he will act on his attraction to the widow. And this is where the book falls apart, big time. For the entirety of the book, we see Jack’s thoughts and his divided loyalties. He is at heart a moral man, but he has to lie to keep the true story of the crash from the town, and this seems to open him to the temptation of the widow. The logical ending of the book would be for him to make one of two choices: to uphold his morality and not commit adultery, or to continue his slide into untruthfulness and to go to bed with the widow. As a reader, I could see this decision looming, and I would have been fine with either choice - Jack could go either way. The problem is that Jack gets shot and killed before he can finally decide. And then the book ends! It was a pointless murder, to boot (the killer thought he was shooting someone else.) This ending was a total cop-out!! The entire book is about morality and life’s choices, and the end is simply nothing. No final choice, no completion of Jack’s initial lie, in either direction. Does he turn around and act morally? Or does he continue his downward fall into immorality? We never know. Perhaps that was the author’s intent, but I felt betrayed by the cheap melodramatic ending, one that didn’t complete the main arc of the entire novel. It was a pointless ending to an otherwise good book. And I consider it a fatal flaw (pardon the pun) to the book, overall. The author sets up the whole book to lead us to this final choice, and then he cops out and doesn’t give us that choice. If we had seen Jack take that final step, I would have given the book 3.5 stars. As it is, I have to give it a single star. Maybe 1.5, since the first part of the book was well done. But I cannot recommend this book to anyone. There are better books about life in Montana - ones that are capable of bringing the reader to an ending that fits the rest of the book. (Ivan Doig and Wallace Stegner are two authors that spring immediately to mind.) Don’t waste your time on this book, unless you like getting cheated out of a proper ending.

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