Black boys started calling Arthur Scott's daughter Elaine on the phone; race riots left broken glass in the streets. Events in Detroit, 1967, frightened Arthur more than the memories and grief waiting on Bent Road in rural Kansas, the home he fled twenty years before. He had vowed never to return, but riots and phone calls broke his resolve. He and Celia, his wife, move with their three children to Kansas, to Bent Road – where Arthur's remaining sister, Ruth, lives with her husband, where their widowed mother lives in the family home next to a shed no one talks about or keeps in repair.
The book's title creates a surface tension the reader penetrates by maddeningly slow degrees. Bent Road is perilous on many levels , but does the greatest danger come from a nearby mental institution or from Ray, Ruth's abusive husband? Does danger arise from another source entirely? What separated Arthur from his family? What happened to a little blond girl who was kidnapped a few days after the Scotts drove in from Detroit? And what happened to Eve, Ruth and Arthur's sister who died twenty-five years before? Eve was eighteen and engaged to Ray when her death split Arthur from his family and spun their community into a dysfunctional state of suspicion for which there have been no answers.
Several characters narrate Bent Road and introduce its skillfully placed clues and foreshadowing: Ruth; Celia; Daniel, the son on the cusp of manhood; and Evie, the nine-year-old daughter and mirror-image of Eve. Evie feels a great affinity for her aunt and eagerly waits to meet her. Nobody tells Evie Eve is dead until the lies run out, and the Scotts must confront the damage stifled truths can do.
I liked this book very much for its taut narrative, flawless voices, and spot-on characterizations. The senses of place and time rang true for the most part. However, there are flaws. Catholics didn't receive Communion in their hands in 1967. Repetition often mars the writing: Celia frowns too many times; characters often cough or clear their throats into closed fists; and the sound of leather gloves slapping together gets annoying.
Fear of black men drives Bent Road. This fear wasn't used only as the impetus for the Scotts to leave Detroit. Black threats await them in rural Kansas. Jack Mayer, escapee from a nearby institution, is described more than once as blacker than night. He allegedly steals food and a car and is suspected of kidnapping the little girl. Daniel Scott may or may not have seen him the night they arrived, and the source of many rumors about Mayer is unreliable.
Another man in the story is described as having skin "as dark as any Negro except he isn't a Negro." Though the issue of race permeates Bent Road, it isn't directly addressed. I wondered what I was supposed to make of that aspect of the novel. The blackness appears to be used as one of the stifling elements that trouble the characters along with small-town mentality and the Church's attitude toward women – in particular, a woman's duty to her abusive husband. I think blackness also acted as a symbol of suspicion and the evil done to a young woman, a little girl, and their community. Yet Bent Road didn't handle the color issue in a way that left me feeling any clear point had been intended, much less made.
However, the characterizations, the nearly flawless plot, and the suspense make Lori Roy's first published novel well worth reading. I highly recommend it.