Hell at the Breech: A Novel

Hell at the Breech: A Novel

by Tom Franklin
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Overview

Hell at the Breech: A Novel by Tom Franklin

In 1897, an aspiring politician is mysteriously murdered in the rural area of Alabama known as Mitcham Beat. His outraged friends -- —mostly poor cotton farmers -- form a secret society, Hell-at-the-Breech, to punish the townspeople they believe responsible. The hooded members wage a bloody year-long campaign of terror that culminates in a massacre where the innocent suffer alongside the guilty. Caught in the maelstrom of the Mitcham war are four people: the aging sheriff sympathetic to both sides; the widowed midwife who delivered nearly every member of Hell-at-the-Breech; a ruthless detective who wages his own war against the gang; and a young store clerk who harbors a terrible secret.

Based on incidents that occurred a few miles from the author's childhood home, Hell at the Breech chronicles the events of dark days that led the people involved to discover their capacity for good, evil, or for both.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060566760
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/16/2003
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: First Perennial Edition
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 397,641
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

Tom Franklin is the New York Times bestselling author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award. His previous works include Poachers, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk. He teaches in the University of Mississippi's MFA program.

Read an Excerpt

Hell at the Breech
A Novel

Chapter One

Dawn crept up out of the trees, defining a bole, a burl, a leaf at a time the world he'd spent the night trying to comprehend. But what would daylight offer except the illusion of understanding? At least in darkness you were spared the pretending. Behind him in the cabin where he and William had lived since the death of their parents came the morning stirring of the Widow Gates, the clatter of logs as she arranged them in a tepee in the fireplace. He should have gone and done that for her.

Her soft, clucking voice reached his ears.

Was she talking to herself? No, to the dog who'd had her puppies the evening before. Ever the midwife, the widow had aided the dog as she'd delivered, with a wet rag cleaning the pups so the bitch would be free to push and whine, the old woman stolidly taking the halfhearted nip from the dog, who was confused by the pain. He turned his head to better hear, to learn what she might confide to the dog, but her voice was too soft.

Get up and go on in there, he thought, help her get breakfast made. Act like nothing's wrong.

But he didn't. He continued to sit with his feet on the steps as the earth redefined itself around him, same as it had the day before and the day before that and as far back as his memory went, as if this dawn were no different from any other. The ground shifted and twitched with early sparrows; he studied them on their twig legs, invisible in the leaves until they moved. He remembered walking home from the meeting at the store earlier, his face to the sky, searching between branches for the white globe of the moon. How unlike itself the world seemed at night, when trees lurked dark and hulking and the birds of the day disappeared who knew where.

His head had begun to ache. He leaned forward and cupped his palms over his ears and closed his eyes, elbows on knees. He was in that position when her legs appeared beside him.

"Macky."

He turned and looked at her ankles through the bars of his fingers. "I couldn't sleep."

"Where's William?"

"I don't know."

"Still over at the store, I reckon."

She set a croaker sack on the porch by her feet. The bag was moving. From inside, behind the closed door, there came a scratching. A whine.

"How long you been up?" she asked.

He couldn't stop watching the bag. "I don't know."

"You don't know."

"That's what I said, Granny."

Her quick hand knocked his hat off. He left it where it lay.

"You'll not snap at me, boy, not after -- "

"I'm sorry." His cheeks had grown hot, she had never hit him.

She reached for his head again, gently this time, but he rose and moved off and stood on the bottom step, facing away from her, gazing out at the just-born yard that lay stretched and steaming before them. The trees were nothing more than trees now and the sparrows just sparrows.

"How many did she have?" he asked.

"Six that lived. The runt died."

She stood holding the sack, then raised it for him. He took it from her; he could feel them moving, hear them crying.

"Drowning's quickest," she said.

"I know."

He heard the widow scraping back across the porch with her cane and heard the door close. Frantic toenails of the dog clicking on the floorboards. As he walked away she began to bark. He went faster, having forgotten his hat, holding the bag out from his side and trying not to feel them or hear them.

At the creek he knelt on the big shale rock where he and William fished. Leaves floated past in the water. It was a deep creek, good for diving and swimming except for the moccasins and snapping turtles. Once they'd caught an alligator snapper the size of a saddle, had lugged it in thinking they'd hooked a log. Then it was sitting on the bank gaping at them, a rock come to life, its shell bony and jagged and mossy green, its head as big as a man's fist. It kept turning its snout side to side with its mouth open and trying to back up, its tongue a black wormy blob. They couldn't afford to lose their hook, but retrieving it seemed impossible with the turtle alive. After some discussion they'd overturned it and, with great care, cut its throat,dragged it far from the water and left it lying on its back. Next day they'd returned to find it somehow still alive, its horned feet kicking feebly at the sky, mouth working open and closed.

The bag lay pulsing. He put a hand over it and defined beneath the cloth a trembling body no larger than a field mouse, legs, tail, head -- eyes that would still be closed, mouth seeking the warm purple teats of its mother. This dog had given birth four times in her life, and until now the old woman herself had done this deed, at first telling the boys she was giving the puppies to a colored family, until the morning they'd followed her to the creek and seen the truth. She'd explained then that while they could afford to feed one dog for the purposes it served, her litters were too much.

He looked into the creek. Another Mack Burke watched him from the water and they locked eyes and rolled up opposite sleeves and gathered the mouths of their sacks in their fists. He looked away from his reflection and submerged the bag, then loosened his grip so that cold water rushed in ...

Hell at the Breech
A Novel
. Copyright © by Tom Franklin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

In 1897, in the rural southwestern area of Alabama known as Mitcham Beat, an aspiring politician is mysteriously murdered. Seeking retribution, outraged locals -- mostly poor cotton farmers -- form a secret society, Hell-at-the-Breech, that begins with the intent to punish the people they believe are responsible but swells into a violent, primitive lust for power. The hooded members of this gang wage a bloody year-long campaign of terror that culminates in a massacre, where the innocent suffer alongside the guilty.

Caught in the maelstrom of the Mitcham War are four people: the county's aging sheriff; the widowed midwife who delivered nearly every member of Hell-at-the-Breech; a ruthless detective who wages his own private war; and a young store clerk harboring a terrible secret. Based on incidents that occurred a few miles from the author's childhood home, Hell at the Breech chronicles the dark events that lead the people involved to discover their capacity for good, for evil, or for both.

Discussion Questions

  1. What role, if any, does race play in this story? Discuss the characters' attitudes toward African-Americans. Were there many differences in power between the white tenant farmers and the former slave farmers? The gang choose to wear white hoods, the traditional gear of the Ku Klux Klan. Why?

  2. Should we allow the crimes of youth be used to judge adults? What if the crimes are classic symptoms of serial killers, such as the torture of small animals or setting fires -- should this information be kept secret? Do you think people who were underage offenders are more or less likely to commit crimes as adults?

  3. Would you qualify the gang's murderers as serial killers? Why? If serial killers usually work alone, can they be a part of a gang? Which of the characters in Hell at the Breech might qualify as a serial killer? How are the gang wars of today the same or different as the one described here?

  4. Was Mack guilty of murder in the sheriff's eyes? Was he responsible for any of the events that followed Arch Bedsole's death?

  5. Did Mack have a choice about joining the gang? Does his passivity make him as guilty as the other members of the gang?

  6. During the final showdown between the sheriff and the gang members, Mack ultimately sides with the gang members. Why? Can he redeem himself? How is Mack different from his brother William? How are they the same? What does the puppy drowning and the brothers' reactions to it reveal about them?

  7. Several characters display a harshness that is unacceptable by today's standards -- for example, Floyd Norris's three ragamuffin sons who torture the dying Ardy Grant out of curiosity. Was this kind of detached cruelty necessary for survival? Are there examples of the opposite approach -- kindness and empathy leading to survival?

  8. Sheriff Billy Waite sticks with his convictions and beliefs; this ultimately prevails. Yet, he reluctantly resorts to vigilante justice and admits that sometimes it is necessary. Do you agree that vigilantism is a necessity at times, even today?

  9. Did you suspect the widow's role in the gang? Is it plausible that a man like Tooch would listen to an old midwife? Do you think women's roles in major events have often been like the widow's -- hidden but also integral?

  10. In the end, the widow no longer loves Mack or William, though it was for them that she put these events in motion. Do mothers ever truly stop loving their children? Does the widow regret her actions?

About the Author

Tom Franklin, from Dickinson, Alabama, is the author of the collection of stories titled Poachers, which was named as a Best First Book of Fiction by Esquire in 1999 and was also the winner of a 1999 Edgar Award for the title story. Recipient of a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, he has held the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residency at Ole Miss and the Tennessee Williams Fellowship at Sewanee. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, poet Beth Ann Fennelly, and their young daughter, Claire.

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Hell at the Breech 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Blending gorgeous prose and dialect that is eerily close to home for most Southerners, Hell at the Breech is at once relentless and sensitive. In a sense, it is not unlike Faulkner¿s The Unvanquished in demonstrating the dangers of justice and vengeance and pointing to the fine line that exists between the two. A wonderful read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a resident of south Alabama who is familiar with the setting and historical basis of this novel, I give Hell at the Breech two thumbs up. Franklin paints a vivid and heart-wrenching picture of the people, the land, and the emotions that contributed to a disturbing time in our county's history. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book turned out way better than i expected it to be.
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