A virgin child dreamed a woman's dreams in the lush, somnolent backwoods of Louisianna. In a year of war, sixteen-year-old Charlotte embarked on a mission of love, only to be set upon by three sodiers in training in a lonely, isolated section of the forest. And thus was a young life destroyed and remade, leaving Charlotte silent and alone, save for something that now grew inside of her. And nine months later when a babe was born--a demon in her eyes--Charlotte abandoned it to the elements, knowing she could never bear to look upon it.
Most wars eventually end. But some continue to rage internally.
Years later, in a world at peace, a friend's gift of pity brings Charlotte to a very special place in the woods. Every night, sad, damaged, overworked and unappreciated women make their way to the House of Gentle Men. Here they find the solace and chaste kindness they so desperately crave, administered by haunted men wishing to atone for the crimes in their pasts.
But Charlotte's past is alive within these welcoming walls. And her own sins and secrets impel her to consort with one--and only one--penitent soul whose accusing conscience has brought him here: a damaged man, no longer a soldier, who once joined two comrades to defile a teenage girl in the Louisiana wood.
From the beginning, the child growing inside her seemed aware of the need for secrecy. It took her monthly flow quietly, swelled her fingers quietly, introduced quietly a craving for mayhaw jelly and Karo syrup straight from the bottle. And the girl--Charlotte--told no one, and no one suspected. For in that fall of 1941, the people of the town could not look at her and see a growing baby. They saw only Charlotte's mother, ambushed by sudden and merciless flames.
The outrageousness of Charlotte's condition furnished more protection. How could a barely kissed Baptist girl--newly sixteen--have conceived anything two weeks after her mother was killed? For in the grief that follows horror there is no room for any Events, only the slow opening of doors and pickle jars, the refusal of a pet to leave the site of a grave, the sudden tears called forward by the sound of Bible passages and the faint aroma of bacon in the black-eyed peas. Tragedy cannot follow so closely on the ...
A surreal but touching tale set in post World War II Louisiana. A glorious first novel that I think would be particularly enjoyable to explore in the context of a reading group.
If you liked The House of Gentle Men, try these:
On the night of December 3, 1984, Anjali waits for her husband to pick her up at the train station in Bhopal, India. In an instant, her world changes forever. Her anger at his being late turns to horror when a catastrophic gas leak poisons the city air. Anjali miraculously survives. Her marriage does not.
Seamlessly alternating the past and present, taut with Hitchcockian tension and warmed by a redemptive love story, A Heart of Stone tells a darkly humorous, yet ultimately compassionate tale.
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