Mining inspiration from the infamous Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate murder rampage in 1958 Nebraska, the author spins a contemporary tale of the lingering effects of the tragedies on surviving family members. Three narrators are introduced in alternating chapters: Lowell Bowman, whose parents were murdered by Starkweather; his wife, Susan, who fixated on Lowell as someone who could relate to her own abandonment issues; and, most shockingly, Caril Fugate, Starkweather’s partner-in-crime, who refuses to accept the blame for her actions.
When first we meet Lowell, he has been married to Susan for twenty-two years but is experiencing a familiar anxiety, desperate to escape the emotional confines of his marriage. Thus far in his life, he has successfully avoided confrontation with his past, although his wife is more than willing to give him support. As an adolescent, Susan was attracted to Lowell’s ability to survive, having had a sad event of her own to deal with: abandonment by her mother as a child. Everything is tangled up with the random brutality of Starkweather’s initial violence, damage that infects every facet of Lowell and Susan’s relationship, even Lowell’s ability to parent his children.
Ward’s prose is both lyrical and clinically incisive, depending on the narrator, either cautiously examining Susan’s youthful yearning for the orphaned Lowell, his internal agony in as a non-functioning husband-parent, or Caril Ann’s sly revelations as Charlie’s companion. Lowell and Susan’s vulnerabilities cast them in an especially sympathetic light. In addition, Ward's own intimate connections to Starkweather's killing spree give the story a particular believability.
Fugate’s narrative is chilling; she describes Lowell’s mother, Jeanette, in the final moments before her murder, as the doomed woman speaks of her son, how much she loves him, begging the girl to help. Caril remains implacable. In fact, Fugate’s passivity serves as a catalyst for the errant Starkweather as he goes to ever greater lengths to please her, both of them emotional ciphers.
Thirty years later, Jeanette’s son remains crippled by his childhood trauma but unable to connect his current family dysfunction with the past he hoped to escape. He has been running all his life, collecting treasures for his New York gallery along the way, comforted by antiquity: “Sometimes it seems... that the only compensation for the living world, where things changed, were beautiful objects that stood the test of time.” Understanding Lowell‘s demons but unable to persuade him to let them go, Susan explains, “Your past becomes your family’s past, and the things you don’t deal with show up as your children’s dirty laundry.”
The icy Nebraska landscape, sprinkled carelessly with the blood of Starkweather’s victims, becomes finally a scene of redemption as Lowell confronts the demons that have pursued him through his adult life. It is those who carry such burdens who speak most clearly in Outside Valentine, the lost haunting the futures of following generations.