Grim Ozarks mystery by Columbia, Mo., author Laura McHugh

05/23/2014 3:32 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Lucy Dane’s journal was more a notebook of lists, each with a title. Two of the titles weren’t exactly what you’d expect from a 17-year-old growing up in a tiny town in the Missouri Ozarks:

“Things I Know About My Mother” and “What Happened to Cheri?”

Lucy’s mother, Lila, had disappeared suddenly from town when Lucy was a baby. The teenager tried to stay connected to her mom by jotting down tidbits she collected about her.

Lucy’s friend, Cheri, had been missing for months. The possibilities were surprisingly few. But recently, Cheri’s body turned up, or at least many parts of it, stuffed into a hole in a tree by the river.

First-time novelist Laura McHugh takes readers into the crooked geography of the Ozarks, into its viney woods and limestone caves, for “The Weight of Blood.”

The literary mystery is the current selection of the FYI Book Club. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation with McHugh, who lives in Columbia, Mo.

Q. You set the book in a place that was home to you for a while. Hadn’t you moved to the Ozarks from Iowa, like Lucy’s mother, Lila?

A. I was born in Iowa, and my family moved to Ozark County, Mo., when I was in second grade. We lived there for several years, then moved on to other places in southern Missouri. But that was the place I lived from second grade to sixth grade, right up to junior high. I did a lot of growing up there and, yes, definitely one of the places I consider a home of mine.

Why go back for the setting of your novel?

I’ve moved around a bit since then, and I have never encountered another place like it. There was something about all the folklore and superstitions and home remedies. I just absorbed all of that. And the setting itself is dramatic, the cliffs, the caves — a bit foreboding. That really stuck with me.

Where we lived, you couldn’t see another man-made structure from our house, any evidence of other people. I remember one of our nearest neighbors, an older woman, said to us when we moved in, “If you see a grave in the woods, keep walking.” Did that mean there were family members buried in the woods? Had someone been killed and buried there? I had an active imagination.

You include lots of Missouri motifs in the story, including caves.

They were things that stuck with me from living there. We always heard stories about caves, warnings about the false floors you could fall through or underground water you could drown in. It always sounded scary.

And lots of southern Missouri expressions and words here, but not really Ozarks dialect in the dialogue.

I did try to convey that kind of southern language with my word choice, but I didn’t want to bog it down with a lot of phonetic spelling. I wanted to make it accessible.

My editor, who’s from New York City, read through the manuscript more than once and finally told me she just didn’t know this one word, “holler.” You just think people would know that a holler is a hollow or valley. You know, down in the holler. But she was concerned people wouldn’t know, so I had to work in a definition. That was funny.

A copy editor brought up a few things, too: That at one point the characters wouldn’t have the air-conditioning on in the car when it was still May, and that an ice storm in the story was too late in the season. I just said, “No, that’s Missouri.”

The people are living in poor conditions. Their lives seem hard. What did you think about as you depicted them in your writing?

When we lived there, we were very poor. We lived in this ramshackle house, and my room was in an unfinished basement. These are people I’ve seen and known. I wasn’t trying to make them out to be a hillbilly stereotype. To me they are realistic, people I had been around. I was hoping not to offend any of my Ozark people with my depiction.

The novel begins with the discovery of the body of Lucy’s friend, Cheri. What was the genesis of that idea?

I knew from the beginning that Lucy’s friend was missing, and she was dead, but I wasn’t sure what happened to her. One day I saw this spooky looking tree with hoarfrost all over it, with birds perched above, and I thought, she’s going to be found in a tree.

While I was writing, I came across a crime that had occurred in Lebanon, Mo. That’s where I attended high school. What happened to this girl was horrifying, and I knew right away that something similar happened to Cheri.

And so your first book became a mystery, a suspense thriller.

I didn’t really think of it that way. The agent called it “literary suspense.” I guess it became suspenseful as I wrote.

I was thinking about Lucy and how she was affected by these missing women in her life, her mother and then her friend. My main goal was that I wanted the reader to keep turning the pages. When I’m reading, I want to be hooked by the story.

You play a lot with the concepts of knowing and not knowing, of secrets, which gets interesting because both Lucy and Lila serve as first-person narrators. Why organize the book that way?

I came up with the two storylines because I wanted the reader to find out all these things Lucy didn’t know, particularly about what happened to her mother. She’s really trying to discover more about her mother and the past, but some people are good at keeping secrets.

You think everybody knows everybody’s business in a small town, but there are secrets they keep.

Lucy is 17. Why not older or younger?

Part of this is a coming-of-age story. That’s a time when you’re learning that maybe the adults in your life aren’t necessarily doing the right thing, that people you love are not perfect. And that some of them are capable of doing bad things.

And the thing that’s going on here as we find out, sex trafficking, is about as bad as it gets.

My treatment of this stems from this case in Lebanon, where a girl was kept in a trailer for six years. Men would pay with this creepy barter system, with meat or playing cards. We think of this happening in some foreign place, but this was in one of our small towns. Some people weren’t aware. Some people kept it a secret.

Tell about the title, “The Weight of Blood” — a reference to kinship and its strong pull in this Ozarks community, right? For Lucy that means her dad, Carl, and her Uncle Crete.

I was thinking in terms of what Lucy is going through, how some people put those blood ties above all else, above the law. It can happen, especially in these small-town situations, because you’re related or have known these people their whole lives. So, what does the weight of blood really obligate you to do?

And yet outsiders come into that tight community, like Lila. And you!

I was pretty young when I moved to the Ozarks, and young kids tend to be more accepting to outsiders. I had no trouble making friends. But there was something very obvious there: If you’re not from there, you’re an outsider and you always will be. Even if you’ve lived there for years. It’s felt.

Giving Lila her own first-person narrative helps examine that. Then you throw in the accounts of other characters, although their sections are in the third person. How did you pull off the logistics?

Believe me, I was totally cursing myself: Why did I make it so complex? It would have been so much easier with one narrator and one timeline.

But I didn’t want Lila’s story to be in flashbacks. I wanted it to be present and to be as important as Lucy’s story. And the third-person narrators all knew Lucy and Lila, both of them at different times, so they were all connected.

At one point, I split the narratives up, with all of Lucy’s in one file and all of Lila’s in another. Then I spliced them back together and intersected those with the third-person narrators.

I made print-outs and used color-coded paper clips and color-coded highlighters to examine it all. Does this person know this at this point? Has this happened yet? It was kind of insane. I guess it worked out.

This is your first novel but not your first career. How did it happen?

I was a software developer, and I lost my job. I was devastated. My husband said, “Why don’t you go ahead and write a book?” He really encouraged me. At the time I had a toddler and newborn at home. It’s a lot of time to invest in something when you don’t know if anything will come of it.

But I’ve always liked to write. My first degree was in English, and I went back for computer science and information science. I had written some short stories for fun and was published in small literary journals. But, yes, that was my whole background.

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to eeveld@kcstar.com.

The Laura McHugh file

Age: 39

Hometown: Columbia, Mo.

Family: Husband, Brent, and two daughters, 8 and 5

Education: Bachelor’s in English at Truman State University, bachelor’s in computer science and master’s in library and information science at the University of Missouri-Columbia

Next project: A second novel, a suspense thriller set in Iowa, due out in 2015

Join the discussion

The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.

Members of FYI and the library staff chose “The Weight of Blood” by Laura McHugh.

If you would like to participate in an upcoming discussion of the book, led by the library's Kaite Stover, email kaitestover@kclibrary.org.

Excerpt

From “The Weight of Blood” by Laura McHugh, published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House

LUCY

That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body. One Saturday in March, fog crept through the river valley and froze overnight. The morning sun crackled over a ghostly landscape across the road from my uncle’s general store, the burr oaks that leaned out over the banks of the North Fork River crystallized with a thick crust of hoarfrost. The tree nearest the road was dead, half-hollow, and it leaned farther than the rest, balanced at a precarious angle above the water. A trio of vultures roosted in the branches, according to Buddy Snell, a photographer for the Ozark County Record. Buddy snapped pictures of the tree, the stark contrast of black birds on white branches, for lack of anything better to print on the front page of the paper. It was eerie, he said. Haunting, almost. He moved closer, kneeling at the water’s edge to get a more interesting angle, and that was when he spied the long brown braid drifting in the shallows, barely visible among the stones. Then he saw Cheri’s head, snagged on a piece of driftwood: her freckled face, abbreviated nose, eyes spaced too wide to be pretty. Stuffed into the hollow of the tree were the rest of Cheri’s pieces, her skin etched with burns and amateur tattoos. Her flesh was unmarked when she disappeared, and I wondered if those new scars could explain what had happened to her, if they formed a cryptic map of the time she’d spent missing.

Cheri was eighteen when she died, one year older than me. We’d lived down the road from each other since grade school, and she’d wander over to my house to play whenever she felt like it and stay until my dad made her leave. She especially liked my Barbies because she didn’t have any dolls of her own, and we’d spend all day building little houses for them out in the woodpile, making swimming pools with the hose. Her mom never once called or came looking for her, not even the time I hid her in my closet so she could stay overnight. My dad found out the next morning and started hollering at us, but then he looked at Cheri, tears dripping off her face as she wolfed down the frozen waffles I’d made her, and he shut up and fried us some bacon. He waited until she finished eating and crying before giving her a ride back home.

Kids at school — including my best friend, Bess — thought Cheri was weird and didn’t want to play with her. I knew Cheri was slow, but I didn’t realize there was actually something different about her until fourth or fifth grade, when she disappeared into the special ed class for most of the day. Newspaper articles after the murder described her as “deficient” or “developmentally disabled,” with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. We weren’t as close in high school — I’d outgrown her in certain ways and spent most of my time with Bess — but we still shared a bus stop at the fork of Toad Holler Road, and she was always there first, sitting on a log under the persimmon trees, smoking cigarettes she’d steal from her mother and picking at her various scabs. She always offered me a cigarette if she had one to spare. I didn’t know how to inhale, and she probably didn’t, either, but we sat there every morning, elbow to elbow, talking and laughing in a cloud of smoke.

One morning I beat Cheri to the bus stop. I got worried when the bus rumbled up the dirt road and she still wasn’t there, because her mom always sent her to school, sick or not, if only to get her out of the way. Days passed with no sign of her, so I walked through the woods to her mom’s trailer and knocked and knocked, but nobody answered. There were rumors she’d dropped out of school, and when somebody from the county finally went to check it out, Doris Stoddard said her daughter had run away. She hadn’t reported her missing because she figured she would come back.

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