Walking Through Shadows by Bev Marshall

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Bev Marshall’s first novel, Walking through Shadows, is a breathtaking creation. Set in a small town in rural Mississippi just before World War II, the story’s obvious center is the murder of a young woman, Sheila Barnes. Sheila is one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve run across in recent years – just seventeen at the time of her death, married for around a year, Sheila is uneducated but full of unconventional wisdom, which she bestows gently on those around her as their needs dictate. She is a gift in their varied lives – and they all come to realize it in their own time.

Sheila comes to work at the dairy farm run by the Cotton family, and soon becomes the Best Friend of ten-year-old Annette (her caps) – the two girls grow as close as family, and at one point Annette’s mother, Rowena, comments that `Annette loves Sheila like a blood sister’. Sheila is seemingly completely without a formal education – she comes from a family of numberless children, loomed over by her brutal father. The beatings – and other abuse – she receives from him on a regular basis are the central reason in her leaving home, to seek work and shelter at the Cottons’. She is also possessed of a physical anomaly – a hump on her back – although she never lets it interfere with her image of herself or the way in which she attempts to live her life. It is at the Cottons’ dairy, where she works, that she meets Stoney Barnes – despite her `deformity’, he falls in love with her (and she with him), and after a short courtship, they marry. The abuse she suffered at the hands of her father continues sporadically – and Stoney is guilty of inflicting physical pain on her as well. When he reports Sheila missing early one morning, and her body is found in the Cottons’ cornfield, the investigation that ensues reveals things about almost everyone involved that each one would have most certainly preferred to be left in the dark. The revelations strain friends and family and community – the outcome is both expected and surprising, and soul shaking.

The story unfolds gracefully through various viewpoints – a technique that Marshall employs extremely well. The author endows each of the characters with a distinctive personality and – even more importantly, I think – a unique, completely believable voice. Rather than simply describe each character to the reader, the author skillfully allows them to illuminate not only themselves but also each other. Their narratives – which vary in length, but grow shorter and switch back and forth more in the second half of the book – overlap in both subjects and time frames, much as if the reader were privy to individual tellings of the same story, walking from room to room, eavesdropping. There is a subtlety in Marshall’s method here that is a wonder to behold – things are revealed to the reader as they are revealed to those in the story, allowing the mysterious aspects of Sheila’s brutal murder to be opened like a flower. The suspense is palpable and deftly controlled.

There are lessons to be learned here – as well as a story that entertains – about a plethora of subjects: love, honor, family, pain, abuse, friendship, faith, race, healing, and more…including magic. I’m not speaking of the type of magic that is performed on the stage – I’m speaking of the more indefinable magic that lives and breathes in the touch of a friend’s hand, in the stories they share that delight and instruct, in the pain that we cause each other and in the healing we can inspire. If this leads you to believe that this is a soporific tale, don’t be deceived – this is fine writing of the highest order, and a story that reveals not only the innermost workings of its characters, but of all of us.

Review by Larry Looney

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