Everyone harbors dark secrets, but none more so than sensitive TL, who returns to Swamp Creek as teacher complete with a PhD. Unable to imagine a new life in an old place, TL is sure that he’s been dropped into a different time and a different place. As the pieces come together like the links of a chain, we must discover the point of TL’s journey in a world that seems to grow smaller
as each humid month passes.
It’s mid-June 2003, with no shade in sight. While the sun blazes down upon the Meetin’ Tree, TL is engulfed in stifling heat. Like a sauna that scorches his throat, the heat will come to symbolize many of the issues
that TL and his shattered family will face. The smoldering air seems to suffocate
TL while he has an hallucination: twelve huge gates and a city made of perfect gold.
While TL has been away in cosmopolitan New York, his step-Momma and Daddy have been confined to the family home in Swamp Creek. TL’s father is given to self-righteous rants that a man--a real, bona fide man--ought to make a decision and stand on it regardless of what it costs. Naturally, TL receives little comfort from his stepmother, who wishes his son would make up his mind, stop interrupting other people’s lives, and commit to a future only he’d considered.
Committed to solving the mystery of the whereabouts of his Sister, TL begins to feel trapped, especially after he listens to the muttered ramblings of CliffSteen, who spends her days walking the dirt roads, spelling words out loud, and reciting times tables while talking about her special child, whom she named Jezebel.
While Cliffsteen waxes lyrical over the story of Aunt Easter who had the
devil in her and was rumored to have been buried alive (“she wunnit dead, but that’s why you back”), TL tries to understand why his stepmother is offering excuses for Sister’s disappearance. Certainly TL’s brother, Willie James, knows more than he’s letting on, but courage seems to be an attribute
that Willie James can’t seem to find, even if he could muster the nerve to confide. In order for TL to know the truth, he must step outside of what he thinks he knows and what he perceives as possible.
While Sister’s whereabouts lie at the core of the story, the characters’ stories of triumph, beauty, and achievement truly anchor the tale. These people cling to memories of better times, harboring a new kind of wisdom for generations of black children. The wistful journals of local teacher Ms. Swinton hold even more surprises, the revelations forcing TL to relinquish his image of her as the perfect, polished teacher.
The author’s enthusiasm for his material is obvious, even when his story occasionally falls into cliché. Building his novel upon layers of truth and revelation about small-town dynamics, friendships and betrayal, Black draws it all together with ease, making every scene count as TL confronts his deepest passions and fears in Swamp Creek’s perpetually long, hot, stifling summer.