By Kathy Wiechman
Boyd’s Mill Place, 2016
Reviewed by Carol Baldwin
Kathy Wiechman’s second historical novel, Empty Places, is well-researched, beautifully written, and evocative of time and place (the 1930’s in Harlan County, Kentucky).
Within the first few pages the reader meets spunky, 13-year-old Adabel Cutler who is trying her darndest to keep her family from falling apart. Adabel’s father is a coal miner who drinks too much and fights with her big brother, Pick. Her older sister, Raynelle, wants to marry the grocer’s son to help keep food on their table. Her little sister Blissie has a “sweetness that makes folks smile and forgit she’s a Cutler” (p. 10). But Adabel’s biggest problem is that her mother disappeared seven years ago and Adabel is tormented by the fact that she can’t remember her. “Mama was an empty place in my mind” (p. 17).
Like a detective, Adabel’s relentless pursuit of the truth propels her through the story and into conversations with her family and neighbors. This dialogue transpires after Pick tells her about how their father sent the children away after their mama disappeared:
“Don’t ya remember? When Mama first left, Daddy shunted us young’uns off. Me to Shovel’s. Raynelle and Blissie to Granny Cutler’s. And you… I cain’t recall who he give you to. Was it Jane Louise’s mama?”
“I don’t recall none of that. I only remember living in the old house with y’all. Till we moved here last year. It’s always been us. You, me, Raynelle, Blissie, and Daddy.”
“Ya’s lucky not to remember ever’thing. Some things is best forgot.”
“Ya’s wrong, Pick.” A mind full of empty places was worse’n the awfulest memories a body could have. (p. 67)
Each conversation leads to the next. Adabel asks Jane Louise’s mother:
“But ya recollect Mama leaving?”
“I just recollect how broke-hearted your daddy was. He loved your mama deep.”
It was hard to think of Daddy loving anyone deep. (p. 77)
With each new conversation, Adabel begins to put together a picture of her past that is different than what she had previously believed.
Not having memories of her mother haunts Adabel. When she finds out the reason for her poor memory she thinks, “Knowing didn’t fix the empty places in my head, but having a reason for ’em being there made me feel a heap better about it” (p. 188).
Adabel’s newly found knowledge gives her courage and strength. I’m not going to spoil the ending for you. Let’s just say Adabel’s detective work brings healing to her family and leaves the reader feeling hopeful for her future.
Empty Places will be a great classroom resource for middle school students studying the Depression, coal mining, and the Appalachian area.
CAROL BALDWIN is a contributing editor to LitChat. Read her full bio here.