The story first came to me via a friend from the part of the country I still think of as home, even though I haven't lived there in over 30 years. A woman in southeastern Illinois convinced two other people that a teenage girl had placed a hex on all of them — a death hex, the woman called it, because the only way to make it disappear was to kill the girl, and that's what these people set out to do in this small town of a little over 200 where my mother had once taught school.
I remember that elementary school and the town's general store and its post office and its grain elevator — each of them now gone. The train tracks still run through the town's center, and there's a large turkey farm at its edge. For the most part, though, the town is a scatter of houses, where people are doing the same things people are doing in larger cities — living with what pushes and pulls at their hearts, bumping up against one another in ways that change their lives, and lying down at night alone in the dark with every ache and joy that comes from wanting what we all want: someone to love and someone to love us in return.
When I started to work with this story from the news — a murder plot wrapped up in witchcraft — it was because I couldn't imagine how an unremarkable woman could exert so much influence over the thinking of two others. How in the world did they come to believe in magic, these ordinary people, one of them a 19-year-old girl who'd never been in trouble? How did she find herself in the middle of this plan to kill, and why didn't she get out of it once she knew it could only come to a bad end? I had to write the book to see if I could figure it all out.
That girl became Laney in my new novel, Break the Skin. She's a girl who touches my heart in all the right ways — a girl still searching for the first love of her life, a girl with a beautiful singing voice that might take her places if she'd let it, a lonely girl who could have everything she's always wanted if the stars would just line up in her favor. In her own voice, she tells the story of how she became smitten with Delilah Dade, a woman 16 years her senior who carries her own tale of disappointment. When Delilah falls in love and then loses her man to a woman named Rose MacAdow, Laney allows Delilah to concoct a plot for revenge, invites it even, and then comes to regret that fact. "I should have called an end to it," Laney tells us. "I should have said we were fools. I should have walked away. I should have called the police. I should have gotten out. I should have been the girl Mother wanted me to be, the girl with a singing voice so sweet and pure the angels had no hope of matching it. I should have been that girl with all her life ahead of her, a pretty life full of music and joy."
It's the glimmer of that wonderful life so close Laney can almost grab it that drives this novel. I hope she'll touch your heart in all the right ways, too, this girl who finds herself doing things she never could have imagined, all for the sake of love.
÷ ÷ ÷
Lee Martin is the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Bright Forever; novels River of Heaven and Quakertown; a story collection, The Least You Need to Know; and two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones. He has won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Lawrence Foundation Award, and the Glenna Luschei Award. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The Ohio State University.
Books mentioned in this post