Sunday Salon: Breakheart Hill

Sunday_salon Breakheart Hill is the third novel I’ve read by Thomas H. Cook. The books all follow the same pattern: small-town America, narrator a father with wife and single child, some horrible event in the past, air of menace, twist in the tail.
In Breakheart Hill, a tragedy occurred in the summer of 1962 in the small southern town of Choctaw, Alabama, while the narrator, Ben Wade, and his friends were teenagers nearing the end of their high-school days. Kelli Troy is a new girl: a “Yankee” from Baltimore, who has no father and with whom Ben immediately falls in love – a silent love which he daren’t confess in case he’s rejected.
It gradually emerges that Kelli is a talented writer; she and Ben get to know each other well as a result of their work on the student newspaper. As she gains social confidence, Kelli is not afraid to question facts that her schoolfriends and the townspeople take for granted, such as why Black people are not allowed to enrol in school, and why there is a separate part of the cemetery for them. She hears of an annual race that was run every year on the nearby Breakheart Hill but which was stopped some years back. She begins to dig into the history of the event, finding out a horrible story of racism and evil. Despite their growing closeness as embryonic activists, Ben still can’t bring himself to declare his feelings for Kelli. As the school play is cast, and a nearby mall is picketed by Black workers, events come to a dramatic climax.
This story in itself is very well told, dodging back and forth in time, with some nicely observed vignettes of the teenage and adult versions of several characters. I particularly liked the somewhat creepy aspect that the adult Ben, who has become the town doctor,  knows what befalls all the characters and confides their fates to the reader when describing their pasts – one has a sense of the sword of Damocles hanging over the characters. A theme familiar to Cook’s other novels is also in evidence here: the nasty parent, in the shape of Ben’s apparently solid father, who owns the local store – on this occasion the nastiness is sufficiently in the normal range to be hidden from all but Ben himself. But how has it affected the motherless boy?
Overall, the sense of dread is far too overdone for my taste. Rarely does a page go by in which the reader is not reminded of the awful event that is to happen to Kelli, and there are just too many heavy hints that Ben is involved. If these aspects had been reduced to about half their number, the book would have been a perfect little thriller. There are a few nasty surprises at the end that shock effectively and leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth, but a less portentousness would have greatly improved the impact of this otherwise well-plotted page-turner.