March Read of the Month: “A Glooming Peace This Morning” by Allen Mendenhall

Allen Mendenhall’s debut novel, A Glooming Peace This Morning (Livingston Press 2023), is an achingly lovely, stirring novel about confused youth, a tragically mismatched relationship, legal ethics, and small-town Deep South in the 1970s. The story is told in the voice of a mature man looking back forty years to events in his youth, and the philosophical musings in his point of view add a layer of depth to the tale. The narrator, called Cephas after his boyhood nickname, has not entirely made peace with what happened back then, and he may not understand it completely either. Yet Mendenhall, in effectively using the retrospective narrator technique, fuses Cephas’s adult reflections with his youthful confusion and angst in remarkably evocative prose that is sure to have an impact on readers of this story.

The title comes from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which casts a poignant tone and foreshadowing into this literary novel. In the story, the town’s favorite daughter, a barely teenaged Sarah, and Tommy, a mentally handicapped older teen, strike up an unconventional and ultimately dangerous relationship. Consistent with the title, the opening lines are: “Let me tell you a story from my childhood, a tragedy worthy of ancient Attic theater, a sordid account of illicit love and unfortunate loss, of law and order, justice and mercy, life and death.”

The narrator reflects that as a youth, he didn’t have a story to tell until Tommy and Sarah gave him one, and that their story “made me who I am.”  Cephas, who is both chronicler and major character, reflects on Sarah:

Sarah wasn’t just any person. She was a cultural touchstone, standing precariously for everything that was pure and good in Andalusia. She was popular not just among students but among teachers, who projected standards of behavioral excellence from her perfect example. She became the ideal against which all other children were measured.

In contrast, Tommy was “an oddity” who “bless his heart, would never reason beyond the capacity of a child” and who, though developed physically, “couldn’t read or write a lick.” Described as one who “plodded through the room like a bitted mule,” Tommy shows himself loyal to his brother and his brother’s friend when he jumps to their defense against a bully and proves he “could fight like a polecat.” At the relevant times, he is eighteen and Sarah is thirteen.

When Sarah becomes ill with a mysterious disease, which everyone recognizes is serious without exactly knowing what it is, her friends and fans abandon her for fear of catching whatever ails her. Yet Tommy is not afraid and seeks out the lonely Sarah. The two are drawn closer, much to the puzzlement of Cephas and his friends.

Cephas—like most of the town’s young men—once fancied himself in love with Sarah. From the vantage point of the retrospective narrator, long after the pivotal moments, Cephas recalls that “Every time I heard that name—Sarah—something inside me burned. It was a pain that felt simultaneously good and bad.” Later, he admits that “I hated her because I loved her.” Motivated by unrequited love and jealousy and other perhaps unknowable, confused motives, he and his friend set into play events which will only evolve into the foreshadowed tragedy.

Sarah is revealed to readers primarily through Cephas’s eyes as a mature man remembering her. She rarely speaks for herself, though in a couple of chapters she does so quite clearly. Thus, Sarah remains elusive and enigmatic on one hand, and yet vivid on the other hand. To capture these conflicting qualities in such an absorbing manner is evidence of Mendenhall’s talent.

Likewise, Tommy appears primarily through Cephas’s eyes and remains more elusive, no doubt because Cephas never really knew him as he did Sarah. Yet Tommy’s place in the novel is central to the story and, though he is more catalyst than character at times, keeping an unknown quality about the young man is effective and affecting.

There remains a haunting quality in the tale. Tommy, Sarah, and Cephas will stay with readers. Given the writing style, and the step-away from direct characterizations of Sarah and Tommy, there is a dream-remembered quality. The novel unfolds as if someone is verbally sharing a tale around a hearth on a long night about events from decades before, in which the storyteller might pause, contemplate, add a philosophical aside or an astute observation of life, and move on.

The novel begins and ends with Cephas’s reflections upon “story”:

Without stories, we are merely animals seeking food and sex and power as we waste away into nothingness.

We become part of it, each of us: a plot someone has heard, an element of some narrative. We lived. That’s all anyone can say. Because you can’t touch time. You can’t grasp it. It’s the only thing there is in the end that isn’t anything in the beginning.

Allen Mendenhall

Throughout the novel, the writing is refined, educated, often lyrical, and masterful. Mendenhall captures the White culture of small-town South wonderfully well and with sympathy. This is a beautiful, poignant story, eloquently written, which lives up to the opening promise of being a story “worthy of ancient Attic theater.”

Allen Mendenhall is the former editor of The Southern Literary Review, the author of eight nonfiction books, and the Grady Rosier professor at Troy University, as well as an administrator at TU with duties as the Associate Dean of the Sorrell College of Business. Visit him at



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