It's an early June day in southern Indiana, and language arts teacher Margo
Brown is enjoying a well-deserved respite from her duties at Riley Middle
School. Hard at work in the garden, she's busy setting in tomato seedlings
when suddenly a rusted handgun pops out of the dirt. Encrusted with clay, the
pistol appears old to both Margo and her husband. Dew Brown decides to take
it to a gun collector for dating. First, though, he shows it to his father.
Ambrose Brown had once owned the land where Margo and Dew's house now stands.
When Margo learns that Ambrose bought the eighty acres from Gus Steiner, and
sometime later Gus died in a strange accident, her imagination begins to run
wild. She decides to visit the library and look up the details of Gus' death.
Word travels fast in a small community, and before long, Margo's neighbors
are all aware of her find. They also know she's digging into the past, and
not everyone is happy about it. When Margo receives a message warning her to
leave well enough alone, it only spurs her on to greater action. By now she's
discovered that Gus died of a gunshot wound, and after a brief investigation,
his two sons were indicted for murder. Neither Hugh nor Leroy was convicted,
but according to the older residents of the town, everyone knew they were
guilty. Everyone also knew that Gus Steiner, a stern schoolmaster and sheep
farmer, was a wealthy but stingy old cuss who worked his sons unmercifully
and was cruel to his family. Tragedy stalked the family even before Gus'
death. Steiner's wife left him, taking their 13-year-old daughter with her.
Hugh's daughter died young, as did his son, an alcoholic. Leroy's daughter
left town soon after her grandfather's murder, as did the brothers' wives.
Hugh and Leroy both died before their time, as did a deaf cousin who was
suspected of having a hand in Gus' murder.
When Margo learns that the cousin had a brother who served in WWI, and the
gun she found dates from that time, she's sure she's discovered evidence that
could reopen the case. But she's still being warned off by someone intent on
stopping her investigation. A push into the river during a fireworks display
on the Fourth of July leaves Margo not only wet and filthy, but also mad. She
vows to learn the truth about Gus Steiner's death no matter what the cost.
Marlis Day gives us another delightful look into the workings of a small town
in Death of a Hoosier Schoolmaster. Secrets abound in Calmuck, Indiana, and
skeletons rattle in the most unlikely closets. The intrepid Margo Brown is as
witty as her creator as she ponders the mysteries of children ("Just when I
figured it was safe to write a check again, college started."), teaching 7th
graders ("I sincerely hope his parents find counseling for him…or maybe a
lobotomy."), marriage to Dew ("An early riser, he has the metabolism of a
canary in the morning."), and dieting with a friend. ("Roxie and I were both
suffering from the slower metabolism that plagues the middle-aged, making us
a little too short on the weight/height charts.") Written in a casual,
chitchat-over-the-back-fence sort of way, the book sometimes wanders down
paths that lead nowhere, as when Roxie confides to Margo that a ghost is
inhabiting her house. Day fails to tie up that loose end, leaving the reader
grasping for plausible answers to doorknobs that rattle on their own and
mysterious hand-prints on mirrors. And while Margo's adventures in cooking
are mouth-watering, her frequent side trips into the kitchen occasionally
slow the pace of the action. Nevertheless, the plot is sufficiently puzzling
to hold the reader's interest, and the twist ending brings a satisfying
conclusion to the story. For those who enjoy witty dialogue and the coziness
of a small town mystery, Death of a Hoosier Schoolmaster makes for a pleasant
read on a lazy afternoon.