Click here to read reviewer Niki Masse Schoenfeldt's take on Master of the Delta.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel, readily accepting the premise that much of the novel would be shrouded in gothic symbolism and the subtle innuendo of class distinctions that remain prominent, albeit less impressive, in the 1956 Mississippi Delta region.
A child of privilege raised on the family estate of Great Oaks, Jack Branch receives his education at the best academies, returning in his mid-20s to teach at Lakeland High School, as did his father before him.
The elder Branch, a recluse at Great Oaks since “the incident” when he succumbed to a deep depression, has spent the intervening years writing a biography of Lincoln and penning multiple volumes of a personal history, The Book of Days. Since his mother’s demise on the ocean crossing, returning from a European vacation, Jack has basked in his father’s sole attentions.
Fancying himself above average and of a literary bent, Jack enjoys weekly dinners with his father and the esoteric discussions that follow, ranging freely over the great concepts of literature and man’s impulse to better understand human nature. Teaching a special class on evil, Jack Branch has meticulously prepared his lectures, capturing the attention of his less-than-brilliant students - many from the more undesirable parts of town - with an eye to the future.
These students stand out for various reasons: a beautiful girl dating a possessive, mean-spirited boyfriend; the boyfriend’s inarticulate sidekick; and the class loner, Eddie Miller, son of infamous local murderer Lucas Miller, the Coed Killer. It is Jack’s fixation on Eddie that leads to his most altruistic ambitions and the ultimate betrayal of an excess of pride.
The plantations of Branch’s privileged youth play a large role in Cook’s unfolding plot, as does a poor part of town referred to as the Bridges. But it is Branch’s ego-driven assumptions that fuel the actions of a well-intentioned teacher who learns more about himself than he is prepared to acknowledge.
Peppered with unusual characters and viewed from the blurred lenses of Branch’s prejudices, most of the individuals at the heart of Cook’s twisted gothic tale are stereotypical, people with few advantages mired in decades of poverty and unfulfilling labor, Jack the arbiter of culture and higher learning.
A lack of humility and an excess of hubris lead Jack from the first impulsive act to the final violence that reveals his character in all its flaws. Somber and didactic, a seemingly innocent attachment breeds a life-changing act, Jack disillusioned while others face harsher consequences.