Orbie is a nine-year-old whose father died in a tragic incident at the steel mill where he worked, an incident blamed on a black worker’s carelessness.
His mother quickly remarries, leaving him and his younger sister at the mercy of a deceptive and sometimes violent stepfather, Victor, who is suspicious and hostile towards him. So when his family goes to Florida so that Victor can cement a business deal, he is left behind with his Granny and Granpaw in Kentucky.
There, Orbie, who has grown up with the automatic assumption that black people are inferior and scary, encounters them as equals – his grandparents, tired of the racism and arrogance of their white neighbors, belong to the local black church, and socialize mostly with black folks. Orbie makes friends with young Willis, an orphan being raised by the mysterious Moses Mashbone, a charismatic and powerful half-Choctaw preacher who handles snakes and cures wounds.
Inevitably, he finds himself drawn into Moses’s teachings, and to his grandparents’ philosophy, learning much about himself and the world around him in the process. As Orbie begins to discover that he, too, has certain mysterious powers, his mother and stepfather return, throwing his newly-discovered world into chaos again. Can he discover the truth about his father’s death, and convince his mother of the danger they are in? Can he stop his stepfather’s machinations in time to protect his grandmother and grandfather from eviction, keep his sister from molestation, and prevent himself from losing everything he holds dear? And can he do it without being damaged by his own hatred and violence?
This is a rural-America version of Hamlet, in a way, but with intriguingly different choices made by the protagonist that have their inevitable effect on the ending. The magical undercurrent that runs through the story adds to its feeling of otherworldliness, and the symbolism is both omnipresent and beautifully handled (the image of Moses as the Hanged Man is particularly evocative).
The story clearly points up the ways racism is used to benefit the powerful, and conversely how Granny and Granpaw use their anti-racist views to make a sharp counterstatement about human worth and its relation to worldly power. Orbie is a well-written main character, who actually thinks and perceives events like a child rather than simply voicing the adult author’s perspective, and whose growth in understanding and courage can be seen throughout the book.
Orbie’s magic does occasionally feel somewhat like a deus ex machina, particularly at the end, where it prevents a tragedy of the Hamlet sort. Things are rather too easily resolved at the end, with some apparently-irreversible tragedies ending up surprisingly reversed. And despite our brief glance into Victor’s boyhood, the good-guys vs. bad-guys line is fairly clearly drawn, with little moral ambiguity.
This is a well-written, evocative and thought-provoking book, which should be read by fans of Shakespeare and of rural American literature alike.
Reviewed by Catherine Langrehr for IndieReader