Wright creates a deceptively simple tale set in 1960s Texas, when Elvis is King and a long, hot summer stretches out before Jim and his cousin, Lee Ann (L.A.). Only children seeking shelter from abusive home lives, Jim and L.A. find safety and security with Gram, who hasnít much but is open-handed with her love for her grandchildren. Jim has left his motherís home because of the actions of an abusive stepfather, L.A. only recently arrived at Gramís after an incident she refuses to discuss. Both their mothers, irascible hard-drinkers drawn to destructive men, have chosen to stay with their mates and let their children leave.
Described as a coming-of-age novel tinged with the mystery of a local murder, Wrightís powerful emotional drama stars the two adolescent protagonists, who wander freely with Gramís permission from football in vacant lots to the tracks, where they collect empty bottles for the cash deposit offered by a local store. L.A. takes advantage of a brush with an ill-intentioned ex-con to extricate the cousins from a bad situation in one exciting encounter, but she has not yet settled in to her new life, withdrawing silently at Gramís, sleeping under a mound of pillows, only gradually reviving to her former self, but still to talk about what happened at home. (These two characters remind me of adolescent versions of the children in the eerie ďNight of the Hunter,Ē Gram providing a safe harbor from what lurks in the dark threatening harm.)
Most disturbing is L.A. and Jimís discovery of a naked teenaged girl near the tracks, the dead body specifically mutilated, only one of at least three murders, possibly more as yet undiscovered. Jim suspects that L.A. is in danger, aided by dreams of the murdered girl who appears at the foot of his bed at night. Jim has ďa touch of the sight,Ē heightening his awareness of unseen menace and a world far more fraught with danger than he ever realized before this pivotal summer: ďI woke up in a cold sweat, knowing for a fact that death was a teenaged girl.Ē
Jimís sexual awakening offers a counterpoint to the evolving drama, but even his first delicious experience with his girlfriend canít distract him from the sense of menace that remains even after the murderer is arrested. Something is still terribly wrong; threat still lurks around L.A. A family conference with the mothers, their children and Gram reveals the nature of the secret that has cast a pall on L.A.ís stay, an ugly tale of family dysfunction seeded in a history of abuse and shame. Mothers Leah and Rachel aggressively resist the truth that has tainted their lives, their children the sad beneficiaries of willful blindness.
Wright isnít through exposing his pivotal characters to the demons that flourish among the innocent. Jim is confronted with the crushing reality of L.A.ís real life nightmare, the two of them facing evil incarnate (as if the human monster from ďThe Night of the HunterĒ finally has gotten his victims alone), striking back in their rage and fear, the abuserís identity the cruelest blow of all. Coming of age isnít for sissies. Neither Jim nor L.A. are in any danger of that description, left to put together the pieces of their broken childhoods.