The Edge of Town
The little town of Fertile, Missouri between the wars is the setting for this novel of love, crime, and secrets. There are lots of characters and subplots, but three main threads emerge.
The first thread is about Julie Jones, an innocent, wholesome farm girl who left school at age fifteen when her mother fell sick. Since her mother’s death, Julie has taken care of the house and her father, and raised her five younger brothers and sisters. Her sweetness attracts the attention of Evan Johnson, a war veteran who has come back to Missouri to take care of his father’s farm. Evan hopes that Julie can love him, even though he is the son of the town’s notoriously mean and obnoxious drunk. Julie can’t imagine that a sophisticated man like Evan could love a country girl like her. And then, of course, there is Julie’s big secret.
The second thread involves Birdie Stuart, a beautiful, devious widow who comes to town to live with her brother, and immediately begins spreading dissent. The third thread is about a serial rapist who has been preying upon the young women of the town for several years.
The three threads gradually become entwined. The rapist is watching the Jones farm. Birdie fails to charm Evan with her wiles, and she vengefully turns elsewhere. Meanwhile, we become involved in numerous subplots, like Julie’s brother’s involvement in the local baseball team, and the local banker’s mysterious relationship with a drunken wife-beater.
Things move at a leisurely pace in this novel, which gives Ms. Garlock time to do what she does best: focus on the small town and its inhabitants. We meet so many townspeople in this book that it’s amazing I can remember them all; and yet I can, for each is clearly drawn, individual, and memorable. Even Julie’s five brothers and sisters and her father, whose names all begin with J, are distinct in my memory. Amazingly, I never once got them mixed up.
Another nice thing about this book is that its depiction of small-town America is neither condemning nor unbelievably rosy. Garlock obviously loves this little town, with its surrounding farms, afternoon baseball games, dances three nights a week at Spring Lake, and ice cream at the drugstore. Yet she also shows how the town’s insularity and conservatism allowed a rapist to terrorize its young women for years without being caught or even suspected.
While The Edge of Town is a pleasant and well-written read, it’s not what you’d call exciting. Things move at a very easy pace. Evan and Julie are both nice and good, but neither will accelerate your heart rate. The revelation of the villain’s identity is a surprise, but that’s because Garlock doesn’t provide any clues to his identity: there are about six or seven male characters he could have been. Garlock also indulges in too many unnecessary switches of point-of-view. That frustrated me, since she is obviously a skilled enough author to manage her narrative and characterization without all the head-hopping.
The book’s steady pace and lack of real surprises will be a flaw for some; others may find that aspect of the book attractive. The lack of shivery suspense contributes to its pervading air of peacefulness.
The Edge of Town is a sweet book. It is all the good things that implies – comforting, optimistic, nostalgic – without being cloying or precious. If you’re in the mood to read something cozy, this would be a great choice.