Synopses & Reviews
In 1897, in the rural southwestern area of Alabama known as Mitcham Beat, an aspiring politician is mysteriously murdered. Seeking retribution, outraged locals -- mostly poor cotton farmers -- form a secret society, Hell-at-the-Breech, that begins with the intent to punish the people they believe are responsible but swells into a violent, primitive lust for power. The hooded members of this gang wage a bloody year-long campaign of terror that culminates in a massacre, where the innocent suffer alongside the guilty.
Caught in the maelstrom of the Mitcham War are four people: the county's aging sheriff; the widowed midwife who delivered nearly every member of Hell-at-the-Breech; a ruthless detective who wages his own private war; and a young store clerk harboring a terrible secret. Based on incidents that occurred a few miles from the author's childhood home, "Hell at the Breech chronicles the dark events that lead the people involved to discover their capacity for good, for evil, or for both.
Discussion Questions What role, if any, does race play in this story? Discuss the characters' attitudes toward African-Americans. Were there many differences in power between the white tenant farmers and the former slave farmers? The gang choose to wear white hoods, the traditional gear of the Ku Klux Klan. Why?
Should we allow the crimes of youth be used to judge adults? What if the crimes are classic symptoms of serial killers, such as the torture of small animals or setting fires -- should this information be kept secret? Do you think people who were underage offenders are more or less likely to commit crimes as adults?
Would you qualify the gang's murderers asserial killers? Why? If serial killers usually work alone, can they be a part of a gang? Which of the characters in "Hell at the Breech might qualify as a serial killer? How are the gang wars of today the same or different as the one described here?
Was Mack guilty of murder in the sheriff's eyes? Was he responsible for any of the events that followed Arch Bedsole's death?
Did Mack have a choice about joining the gang? Does his passivity make him as guilty as the other members of the gang?
During the final showdown between the sheriff and the gang members, Mack ultimately sides with the gang members. Why? Can he redeem himself? How is Mack different from his brother William? How are they the same? What does the puppy drowning and the brothers' reactions to it reveal about them?
Several characters display a harshness that is unacceptable by today's standards -- for example, Floyd Norris's three ragamuffin sons who torture the dying Ardy Grant out of curiosity. Was this kind of detached cruelty necessary for survival? Are there examples of the opposite approach -- kindness and empathy leading to survival?
Sheriff Billy Waite sticks with his convictions and beliefs; this ultimately prevails. Yet, he reluctantly resorts to vigilante justice and admits that sometimes it is necessary. Do you agree that vigilantism is a necessity at times, even today?
Did you suspect he widow's role in the gang? Is it plausible that a man like Tooch would listen to an old midwife? Do you think women's roles in major events have often been like the widow's -- hidden but also integral?
In the end, the widow no longer loves Mack or William, though it was for them that she putthese events in motion. Do mothers ever truly stop loving their children? Does the widow regret her actions?
About the Author
Tom Franklin, from Dickinson, Alabama, is the author of the collection of stories titled "Poachers, which was named as a Best First Book of Fiction by "Esquire in 1999 and was also the winner of a 1999 Edgar Award for the title story. Recipient of a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, he has held the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residency at Ole Miss and the Tennessee Williams Fellowship at Sewanee. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, poet Beth Ann Fennelly, and their young daughter, Claire.
"[D]espite some blessedly brief passages of landscape description and baffling observations on the climate...this lean, mean and expertly plotted tale...owes more to Raymond Chandler than to [William Faulkner]....Hell at the Breech simmers with unnerving brutality and black humor. The novel is also an elegant dissection of a catastrophe, namely the climactic massacre, in which innocent people are killed....But as much as Hell at the Breech may sound like a western, it's not; its view of human nature is too bleak. Everyone in it is morally compromised, as the novel's final twist reveals. That makes it feel like a noir, a rural noir, if there can be such a thing. But whatever you call it, it's pretty damn hard to put down." Laura Miller, Salon.com
"[I]mmensely accomplished....Despite an unremitting catalogue of violence, this gory book is a pleasure to read for its clean, unexpected turns of phrase...the laconic humor of its characters...and vibrant, complex characters who spring from the pages....[A] book that transmutes historical fact into something much more powerful, dramatic and compelling." Publishers Weekly
"[An] accomplished account....This is not a story for the faint of heart or stomach....Yet Franklin...is a splendid stylist who explores moral issues and stocks this tale with memorable (if mostly unpleasant) characters, spinning it seemingly effortlessly to a final surprise twist. This is historical fiction at its best." Michele Leber, Booklist (Starred Review)
"Along with breathtaking descriptions of Mitcham Beat's scenery...Franklin does what Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird: He lets his set of quirky characters run the story while he focuses on the repercussions of his characters' curiosity and age. Hell at the Breech is an impressive novel that should catapult Franklin into the big leagues." Nickolas Thomas, USA Today
"Clean, unpretentious language laid down in masterly fashion propels Franklin's [novel]....Historical fiction as smooth and relentless as the darkest Elmore Leonard." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] Faulknerian tale of bloody revenge and vigilante justice....Franklin's dark and gritty first novel is not for the faint of heart; the brutal violence visited upon humans (and animals) is gory and feral, very much like the films of Sam Peckinpah." Library Journal
Based on incidents that occurred a few miles from the author's childhood home, this extraordinary first novel is set in 1897 Alabama at a time when residents formed a secret society, Hell-at-the-Breech, to punish townspeople for the murder of an aspiring politician.
In 1897, an aspiring politician is mysteriously murdered in the rural area of Alabama known as Mitcham Beat. His outraged friends -- —mostly poor cotton farmers -- form a secret society, Hell-at-the-Breech, to punish the townspeople they believe responsible. The hooded members wage a bloody year-long campaign of terror that culminates in a massacre where the innocent suffer alongside the guilty. Caught in the maelstrom of the Mitcham war are four people: the aging sheriff sympathetic to both sides; the widowed midwife who delivered nearly every member of Hell-at-the-Breech; a ruthless detective who wages his own war against the gang; and a young store clerk who harbors a terrible secret.
Based on incidents that occurred a few miles from the author's childhood home, Hell at the Breech chronicles the events of dark days that led the people involved to discover their capacity for good, evil, or for both.
About the Author
Tom Franklin is the award-winning and New York Times
bestselling author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
, which was nominated for nine awards and won the Los Angeles Times
Book Prize and the prestigious Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award. His previous works include Poachers
, whose title story won the Edgar Award, as well as Hell at the Breech and Smonk
. The winner of a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, he teaches in the University of Mississippi's MFA program.
Beth Ann Fennelly has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and United States Artists, as well as a Fulbright grant to travel to Brazil. Her honors include the Kenyon Review Prize and three inclusions in The Best American Poetry. She has published three volumes of poetry as well as a work of nonfiction, Great with Child. She directs the University of Mississippi's MFA program, where she was named the 2011 Outstanding Teacher of the Year.
Beth Ann and Tom live in Oxford, Mississippi, with their three children.