Photo credit: Trish Brown Photography
My family has a long history in rural Kansas. My mother was born in a small town in the southeastern part of the state. Her father was the town doctor and delivered a generation’s worth of babies. Her grandfather owned the general store and later served as town mayor. My great-grandparents lived in that small town until their deaths when I was in college, and we went to visit them often, staying for long weekends and extended vacations in the summer.
Everyone knew me there because everyone knew my great-grandpa. I wasn’t Amy; I was Charlie’s great-granddaughter. My great-grandpa and I would walk uptown, and he’d show me off to everyone we passed, bragging about my grades or how tall I was getting. We always stopped into the Ben Franklin general store and he let me pick out a new toy and a box of Fiddle Faddle caramel popcorn for my long trip home. We’d go for drives in his old boat of a car to a nearby town that had a park full of giant metal slides and a carousel that I must have ridden a thousand times over the years. For breakfast, my great-grandma always served half a grapefruit coated in sugar and adorned with a maraschino cherry in the center. Dinners were heavy, starch-laden affairs, no matter the temperature outside. And dessert almost always involved some form of jello salad — green studded with cottage cheese and canned pears, orange mixed with shredded carrots and pineapple. In the evenings, I’d catch fireflies in the front yard and put them into jars with holes punched in the lids. The street in front of my great-grandparents’ house was paved in bricks and I still remember the sound car tires made as they drove over the uneven surface. Before bed, I bathed in the old clawfoot tub in the upstairs bathroom, as there wasn’t a single shower in the house. And on hot nights, my great-grandma would open all the windows and I’d crawl into bed on the sleeping porch, a wet washcloth draped across my forehead.
It was a magical way to spend a childhood, safe and cozy, but there was always something slightly claustrophobic about it as well, a constant itch at the back of my neck.
A feeling of being watched, of being known
, that made me jumpy. As much as I loved my visits to rural Kansas, I was always happy to get back to Kansas City, where I could move through my life with relative anonymity.
I’m an only child and have no cousins who live in the Midwest, so during those visits I was generally the only kid in a roomful of adults. I remember being privy to conversations around the dinner table that probably weren’t meant for children, talk about happenings in the town and various scandals involving the residents. Everyone knew everyone else’s business, but no one went so far as to interfere in that business. I’m well aware that all of this was filtered through the lens of a child with an overactive imagination and probably doesn’t reflect the whole story, but I was left with the distinct impression that in the town where my mother grew up, you didn’t stick your nose into what happened inside other people’s houses.
It was a magical way to spend a childhood, safe and cozy, but there was always something slightly claustrophobic about it as well.
When I sat down to write The Roanoke Girls
, I knew I wanted to set the story in rural Kansas. It’s a part of the world that isn’t represented very often in fiction, especially in the genre of psychological suspense. And many people have no experience with what is often considered “flyover country.” But I think small-town Kansas lends itself exceptionally well to dark stories, steeped as it is in those competing feelings of comfort and unease, and governed by the unspoken rule that family business is private.
Even after all these years, I can still close my eyes and see, smell, taste, hear, and feel that time and place. It’s visceral and I wanted to try and convey that to readers, to transport them as they turned the pages. There are certain themes that run throughout The Roanoke Girls
: the sense of being both attracted and repulsed, of being both free and confined, that reflect not only what’s happening between characters but also the setting itself. In a very real way, the fictional Osage Flats, Kansas, is its own character in the story. I don’t think The Roanoke Girls
could be set in any other location.
I don’t travel to rural Kansas as often as I used to, now that my great-grandparents are gone. But it’s still a magical place and an unsettling place all at once, confined by its smallness and dwarfed by its sheer isolation on the prairie. I’ve watched it shrink even more over the years, beset by drugs, unemployment, and a declining population. The nostalgia of a simpler past overlaid with the harsh realities of the future. I’ve taken my children a few times, spent sweltering summer weekends watching them spin around on the same carousel I rode as a child, helping them scoop handfuls of fireflies from the twilight sky, telling them stories of how the streets used to be paved in bricks way back when their mother was young.
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is the author of the young adult series The Book of Ivy
. A former criminal defense attorney, she lives in Missouri with her family. This is her first novel for adults.