Review: A magnetic new Bible Belt thriller is no 'Hillbilly Elegy' — and thank the Lord for that

·5 min read

In high school one day, I realized I hadn’t seen a classmate for a while. I asked a gymnastics teammate of hers if she knew what was up. “Her parents pulled her out of school a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “They’re really religious, and they told her to get married.” We were all juniors. I think of her from time to time, wondering if a marriage arranged by her parents when she was 16 has worked out for her — whether she embraced the life chosen for her by her parents or, as I hope, she found a way to rebel.

Laura McHugh’s new novel, “What’s Done in Darkness,” opens on Sarabeth. At 17, she is working at her family’s roadside farm stand and processing the news from her parents: Despite earlier promises that she would be free to make her own choices when she turns 18, she is to be married. McHugh begins the narrative in third person, as if Sarabeth is not in control of her own story. Readers soon learn why.

Hard-line fundamentalist Christianity is a recent phenomenon in Sarabeth’s family. During her adolescence, her father’s dalliance with another woman shook her parents’ marriage, and to shore up their partnership the couple had joined Holy Rock. The church offered them a community that believed the Bible to be the literal word of God, and her parents had imposed on Sarabeth and her siblings a life in which they no longer had access to the corrupting influence of cable television, the internet or public schools.

Sarabeth is shocked to find out her parents’ promises meant nothing, that she has been manipulated.

“She should have seen it coming,” McHugh writes. “Mama had been grooming her for this very thing for years, but she’d assumed that once she became an adult, she could make her own decisions.”

Her parents’ plans are disrupted that day. While Sarabeth is sitting alone at the farm stand, a masked man runs up and forces her into a car. Seven days later, she is found in a blood-stained slip on the side of the road. She has only minor injuries, and local police quickly surmise that Sarabeth ran away in an effort to avoid the forced marriage. Despite the details she gives of her abduction and captivity, police drop the case.

Years later, liberated Sara — who has dropped her full given name — works at an animal shelter. The shelter staff not only care for abandoned animals, they also hunt for and shut down abusive puppy mills. It is not difficult to see the parallel to the life Sara escaped: females are breeders who must marry young and produce a “quiverfull” of Christian warriors.

Sara’s new life is disrupted once again, this time by a call from a detective after another teenaged girl disappears under circumstances similar to hers. Unlike previous investigators, this one believes Sara’s story; overcoming her reluctance, she decides to aid his efforts to find the girl before it’s too late.

Sara now tells her own story, to the detective and to us, in the first person. Sarabeth hated the strictures put in place by her parents and concealed from them her many rebellions. Has the newly missing girl been kidnapped, or did her own rebellion take the form of escape?

This is McHugh’s fourth novel set in the Midwest. Her fiction often turns on working-class life in the Ozarks. Unlike those reporters who parachute in to write about the “backward” nature of such folks, McHugh offers affectionate, respectful views of people a lot more complex than overfamiliar stereotypes. She never patronizes her characters, even as her novels itemize the costs exacted by capitalism on a complacent workforce.

What really sets McHugh apart, though, is that her social novels are seasoned with gothic horror. Each of them has kept me reading late into the night and left me chilled by their revelations. The mountains and hollows of Arkansas are gorgeous, but there be monsters in those hills.

McHugh is tremendously skilled at conveying dire poverty while acknowledging the fears such privation provokes in others — resulting in a punitive lack of empathy among other classes. Money may not buy happiness, but a lack of it is often conflated with unworthiness. McHugh has a gift for showing how those who struggle find other ways of asserting their self-worth, whether in cleaving to religious belief, constructing social hierarchies based on race and gender or simply plotting their escapes.

It is into this world that Sara must return, to figure out what became of the missing girl and to make sense of her own stunted past. Heading back toward home, she observes in roadside details the rot of a past that has never really gone away:

“We passed a mobile home with a blue tarp on the roof and a yard full of battered Christmas decorations, an abandoned gas station with a Confederate flag hanging over the broken pumps. Buzzards gathered for the plentiful roadkill, gorging until we were nearly on top of them, their wide black wings swooping over the windshield.”

Alongside a piercing critique of churches like the fictional Holy Rock, McHugh empathizes with a longing for clear answers and hard rules that afflicts all of us. Whether we’re decluttering our homes, living “simply” or looking for ideological fixes to existential questions, replacing complexity with simplicity attracts adherents, who often refer to the process of revelation as peeling back an onion. That metaphor has always struck me for its cheerfulness; after all, onions sting. Actual truths are not always easy on the eyes.

As Sara peels back the onion of another girl’s disappearance, her immersion in the events she has tried to erase from her memory come back in stinging torrents. Religious literalism substitutes certainty for mystery; so does a sudden rupture with the past. As Sara discovers, she too will have to confront memories that are much more complex — and revealing — than the stories she has told herself ever since.

Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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