The sins of the South. Twin sisters Shenandoah (Shenny) and Woody Carmody have tried to cope with the disappearance of their mother, Evelyn, one summer ago. But their world has grown smaller, the twelve-year-old girls confined to the family estate at Lilyfield, their father, a judge, given to drunken rants and ever more cruel behavior. Shenny receives little comfort from her twin: Woody has not spoken since the night of Evelyn’s disappearance.
Now the girls hide behind the walls of their tree fort, even sleeping there at night to avoid the inquisitions visited upon them by “His Honor.” As the solitary voice for the two of them, Shenny reveals the nightmare that has enveloped them for the last year. Woody still won’t - or can’t – talk, and the judge is threatening to have her institutionalized.
Shenny is the peacemaker, a “daddy’s girl” who goes out of her way to please her daily inebriated father even in the face of his cruelties, offering excuses for his moods and blaming her mother for not being a more dutiful wife, for bringing this sadness into their lives. It is nearly impossible for Shenny to see her father as the guilty party, her fragile world constructed with him at the center. That she is living a lie only gradually becomes obvious to Shenny as the summer passes, watching over fragile Woody and in a constant state of readiness to flee whatever threat appears.
Shenny’s words and actions are telling, revealing a rigid family where females are the pawns of domineering men and her paternal grandmother has spells of “Godliness,” requiring hours of prayer. While Shenny investigates the circumstances of her mother’s last days before her disappearance last summer, she begins to consider the worst explanation of all. Besides the racial divide that runs through this Southern town, there is another, more subtle line between the powerless and the powerful, the wrath of a father who forces his daughters to shun others, outsiders in grave jeopardy if he learns there are any attempts at communication.
Shenny protects her sister, coaxing Woody to speak of what she has witnessed, but it is clear that Woody cannot tolerate this situation much longer, diminishing day by day under the weight of her knowledge. Clinging to memories of better times, Shenny balances between her fantasies and reality, impossibly torn in a grotesquerie of family dysfunction. In the unraveling of this family filled with rage and darkness, a picture emerges, a horror-filled night where neither girl is safe, even from those charged with protecting them.
Although the novel moves slowly at times, as prone to distraction as the thought processes of twelve-year-old girls, Kagen captures the terror of sisters deprived of their mother, the only safe haven in a world filled with threat. Richly atmospheric, the menace builds with each chapter until the final denouement reveals a twisted father, uncle and grandfather who view themselves as above the law, safe from the rules the rest of the world lives by. Shenny and Woody survive their history and the fate of their mother in a gothic tale of violence and cruelty, a collision of loyalties, betrayals and murder, a long hot summer filled with peril.