Melinda Haynes,
(Hyperion, 2001)

Melinda Haynes is the author of Mother of Pearl. Not only was this novel selected for Oprah's book club, but it was a New York Times bestseller. Melinda follows up that success with her new novel Chalktown. Set in George Country, Mississippi, this novel presents rural life in the deep South as it was almost half a century ago.

The year is 1961, and Hezekiah is a disgruntled 16-year-old. His mother, Susan Blair, is a mentally unstable alcoholic who gave up the bottle for God. His older sister, Arena, dreams of life in the big city and is willing to use her physical attributes to get what she wants. His 5-year-old brother, Yellababy, is both physically and mentally handicapped. Hez's dad has all but abandoned the family. The only positive influence in Hez's life is his old "colored" neighbor, Marion Calhoun.

Hez is not overly fond of going to school. He decides one day, while trying to figure how many more days he can miss before the truant officer comes looking, to take Yellababy to Chalktown -- about five miles away. Hez has heard about the strange residents of this town who only communicate by writing on chalkboards. Not only will he avoid school, and get away from his family, but this could be the adventure of his life. Who knows what he'll run into?

The first third of the book focuses on the lives of Hez and his family as well as the people he runs across on his trek to Chalktown. The middle third of the book goes back to Chalktown, 1955. The lives of the main Chalktown residents and why they now communicate via chalk is explained. This is, perhaps, the best part of the novel, as there is a murder mystery to solve. The last third of the story (1961 again) tells what happens when Hez, Yellababy and their eventual tag-along, Cathy, enter Chalktown. Lives change. The 1955 murderer is revealed. (It wasn't who I thought it was). And Chalktown almost seems normal compared to what is currently going on in Hez's hometown.

Melinda Haynes is a southerner who currently resides in Grand Bay, Alabama. She seems to have done an extraordinary job making these characters come to life. At first, I was a little annoyed that I only had a small snippet of one individual before jumping to the next. But, overall, the characters end up being fleshed out rather well. Some of them were so bizarre, that I wanted to learn more about them! I wanted Melinda to keep writing about various residents, even if she had to go to the next town to find some.

If you never thought that quirky, bizarre people lived in (certain) small towns, this might just be the book to change your mind! There are things going on that will make you cringe even as you continue to read in fascination. For example, there is a bizarre love quadrangle that would make an interesting Jerry Springer show. This is a novel where each character has their own story to tell and each story will leave you curious to know more. If you can not tell where I am going with this, I am recommending Chalktown. Just be glad you don't live there.

[ by Wil Owen ]
Rambles: 22 September 2001

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