It is actually quite amazing that author Bill Cheng could have written such an insightful novel about a time and place with which he admittedly has no expertise: the disintegration of a family after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Their small plots of land directly in the path of the flood waters, those who flee are met by a corps of uniformed young men in fresh uniforms who send them to tents with other refugees. Their eldest son lost years before at the end of a rope, Ellis and Etta Chatham have only eight-year-old Robert left, though Etta’s mind has gone with the grief of that loss and Ellis has little hope of ever seeing his family safely together again: “I turned away and left our one living son in a cold, dark field.”
As their future looks ever more hopeless, Ellis imposes on the owner of a local brothel, Miss Lucy, suggesting that Robert can be a helper in the business. While he cries himself to sleep every night in his bed in the cellar, Robert is haunted not only by memories of his older brother but by the sense of abandonment that will follow him all his life and make him yearn for death. This is essentially Robert’s story, but other characters serve to define the years of the flood and after. Eli Cutter is, a master of the blues who entertains customers in bars and bawdy houses. Eventually he is “discovered” by Augustus Duke, a white man who secures Eli’s release from prison with a plan to introduce him on an entertainment circuit. Dora is a young girl from Robert’s past, a co-conspirator who draws the boy into the woods for a kissing game that lingers in his mind long after.
There are people who touch Robert’s life: G.D., who links Robert and Dora over time; Arthur Catkill, a trapper who assumes Dora’s care; the tender prostitute, Hermalie, at Miss Lucy’s, who takes Robert to her heart but dies tragically; the white trapper who nurses a damaged Robert back to health, who calls him “Rowbear.” Robert interacts with these characters, grows into manhood, burdened by the grief he has never shaken, bereft of dreams, faced finally with a hopeful choice for the future but unable to break with the past: “I am soul and brain sick.” Although Cheng brilliantly describes the horrors that beset the disenfranchised and the reshaping of the land by the government, the novel never loses the despair that covers everything like mud.
Moving back and forth in time, the author stages his tableau, from the year of the flood in 1927 to Miss Lucy’s Hotel Beau Miel in 1932 and a reunion with Dora and G.D. in 1942, through the experiences of the primary characters—their pasts, present and relationships to one another. There is violence, unceasing brutality and the particular hopelessness Robert carries with him. While Cheng captures the devastation and drama of the flood and the following years, he fails to capture the spirit of those who survive, overcome and refuse to be made less by their circumstances. Eli’s music and his appeal come through his evocation of the blues. Despite the drunkenness that accompanies his playing, his big hands beating on a harmonium, “his boxful of souls,” this is the music of grief, pain and survival. Robert, unfortunately, never breaks free of the author’s interpretation, caught forever in a downward vortex.