Monday, November 18, 2013

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

Spoiler-free Summary:
Lucy Dane has lived her entire live in Henbane, an isolated little town nestled deep within the Ozark Mountains. Her mother, however, was an outsider – an orphan from the faraway land of Iowa. Seemingly brought there to work at the Dane family farm and store, Lila was exotic and captivating – traits that quickly got her labeled as a witch. She disappeared without a trace shortly after Lucy was born, and her memory haunts the people of Henbane. Lucy desperately wants to know what became of her mother and why she left, but she must first solve another, more recent mystery: Who murdered her friend Cheri, and where did she spend the last year of her life before her remains were found in the middle of town? Lucy’s search uproots her town and the families within. We find ourselves frantically sifting through the intricate and interlaced history of Henbane to find that even the tightest-knit towns can harbor horrific secrets.


The Weight of Blood is the debut novel from Laura McHugh. The writing is simple, but beautiful. McHugh’s descriptions of Henbane are full of lore and mysticism – and this magical quality permeates the characters. Lila, the mother, is powerful and magical, but not because she is a witch. The evil characters (who will not be named) seem to cast a strange trance on the town, assuring that their control is absolute. It feels, at times, that there is more at work here than small town gossip, taboos, and conventions.

I think I have a soft spot for novels set in the Ozarks. I loved the way she recalled the unforgiving wilderness and ungainly citizens with sentimental sweetness. I think this is really the only way one can describe rough-around-the-edge towns without coming off as demeaning.

Though, at times, the plot verges on stereotype. This novel contains guns, booze, incest, and, in a way, slaves - all the pinnacles of a good old fashioned “hillbilly” novel. McHugh’s tremendous writing skill saves this story from rolling eyes. Additionally, the back of the book tells us that Laura McHugh was from Iowa and moved to Missouri, much like our main character’s mystical mother. I appreciate that McHugh drew upon her own experiences as an outsider in the South, which I guess is another reason we can’t be angry at McHugh for generalizing.

I also had trouble with the shifting points of view in this novel. Every chapter is from a character’s point of view and I found this somewhat disorienting. The first half of the novel alternates between Lila and Lucy. I didn’t realize that Lila was the same Lila as Lucy’s mother until I was a quarter of the way in. I’m not sure if that’s because I don’t pay attention or if it was meant to feel that way. Lila’s story is told from the past, but in present tense, and she is about Lucy’s age. Lucy’s story is also told from the present, so I think I assumed that everything was happening concurrently and that this Lila we were reading about was the weird illegitimate sister of Lucy, returned to Missouri to tell Lucy what became of their mother. I had a hard time keeping the Dane brothers straight at first, which really screwed me up. The second half of the novel is from a whole bunch of characters' points of view, some in first person and some in third, which felt jolting and odd. I see why McHugh structured the novel in this way, but I can’t help but wonder if there was a way to make it less confusing.

Overall, I found this story gripping and scary. I knew where the plot was heading, but the little side stories and pitfalls along the way kept me interested. McHugh is a wonderful writer and I can’t wait to see what else she has to offer.

Buy The Weight of Blood in hardcover or eBook format March 11, 2014 from Random House, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble

P.S: While researching the author, I found this story from the Columbia Daily Tribune.
It has some interesting background information on McHugh. It states that she based The Weight of Blood off of a human trafficking case that occurred in Lebanon, Missouri in 2010. I think that this is the case in question. Reading more about it, I faintly remember hearing about it on the news. The resemblances between the victim in this report and Cheri in the novel are uncanny.
In the Tribune article, McHugh also offers some interesting insight into the world of publishing and writing, including the importance of a good query letter.

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