Wild Thorn

Wild Thorn

by William Hoffman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061030956
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/25/2003
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 4.30(w) x 6.66(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

William Hoffman is the author of twelve novels as well as four short-story collections. His writing has won numerous awards, including the Andrew Lytle Prize, the Goodheart Prize, the John Dos Passos Prize, and the Hillsdale Foundation Fiction Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His short stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories 1996. The 0. Henry Awards. Tidewater Blood won the 1999 Hammett Award.

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Chapter One

I lay face up under a night sky not unbounded by space but starless, looming, and closing in as if to make its weight known to me. A random wind carried a restless message and disturbed the sage and swishing buffalo grass of the Great Plains. The wind stirred smoke from our campfire that had shrunk to embers and caused them to come alive with a convulsed red pulsing. The two hobbled horses moved like phantoms through the dark as they searched for graze. A shallow creek flowed over rocks rubbed so many centuries by the relentless water that they had lost all edges and become transformed to smooth configurations of rounds and oblongs. The pitiful, wavering cry of a lone coyote rose off a low bluff and seemed to give voice not just to its own loneliness and longings but also the world's.

The wind aroused scents of the plains and more -- the sea of grass, the soil's acrid thirst from lack of rain, and memory if memory could have an essence. The miles I, Charley LeBlanc, had traveled had provided no escape from broken images of loss that invaded and drifted through my mind. There was no fleeing anything, only rickety evasions created to deceive the self.

In shifting scenes played against the murky night, I pictured another time, another place -- not mountains like the craggy giants of western Montana or the glacial summits that held skullcaps of snow long into summer and beyond, but elevations forested and tamed that pushed up a measly three or four thousand feet, what the natives hereabouts would consider little more than buttes. The mountains of southern West Virginia weren't gnawed upon by erosion as in the Badlands or kin to thejagged peaks of the Rockies but would this time of year be uncurling moistly green and yielding reluctantly to spring. Beneath them ran not strata of copper, silver, and gold but of low-sulfur coal produced by millennia of the past when luxuriant swamp vegetation decayed and became compacted to petrifaction under the earth's overburden till finally transformed into black diamonds -- both the blessing and curse of what in part was a forlorn and desperate land.

I thought of this Montana's wind blowing across the plains, traveling and twisting its way to and among those puny mountains, maybe disturbing the red oaks, the shelly-bark hickories, the papaws, the sycamores, and ruffling their new leaves. The wind would find the gorge the Wilderness River had cut, a torrent of water raging not south or east, but north, up from Carolina to join the Bluestone, the Greenbrier, the Gauley to become the Kanawha, which in turn junctioned with the swollen mighty Ohio.

I pictured a trail that had almost disappeared under sodden leaf falls from mountain hardwoods of generations beyond count as well as recalled the pull against my pants' legs of hip-high growths of snagging hawthorn and stunted honey locusts. The river more than a thousand feet below broke against boulders as large as elephant herds that'd gathered to drink at their evening watering hole.

I augured up in my mind rusted, broken machinery lying among tangles of gleaming poison ivy and ashen wild grass that had somehow found root among crushed coal of a fallen tipple. Wheelless buggies lay overturned, crows flew squawking from crossbeams of wireless power poles, and kudzu had reclaimed beehive coke ovens and reshaped this once half-domesticated land to its own smooth draping. Beside the river the board-and-batten houses of the abandoned camp faced each other windowless across an unpaved company street. As the moist cold of the mountain's shadows filled the gorge, I found partial shelter and refuge in a water-rotted, half-collapsed Jenny Lind -- cabins named, my father had told me, after and in honor of the world's most famous opera star, called in her day the Swedish Nightingale. I cleaned out a fireplace and levered off strips of the house's siding to stomp for kindling. From the street I picked up coal where lumps lay scattered among thistles and jimson weed.

Stretched out on the spongy floorboards, I listened to the horned owl's dirgelike love song, a dog barking, a lynx's shriek, the death squeal of a rabbit, the crashing course of the Wilderness River, and the bugled tattoo of a railroad engine's horn, which sounded the plaint of lonely men everywhere. The muted clack of its wheels became lost in the river's din.

An alien sound wakened me -- the spaced crunching of boots upon cinders. With the opened blade of my Old Pal pocketknife clenched in my teeth, I crawled to the crumbling porch and peered out among the line of ghostly houses. A shape passed, no hungry grizzly or roaming cougar such as might have been on a hunt here in Montana, but a figure moving upright and not so much walking as seeming to glide as if detached from this earth. The shape vanished among dark gaps between houses, then reappeared like a pilgrim in a ceremonial procession -- a moon-silvered form flowing slowly through the night to become reabsorbed by its blackness.

The dog continued to bark, insects throbbed on the mountain's slope, and a whippoorwill sang abruptly and was answered by another more distant. Could any of those sounds have been the language of Esmeralda? If she yet walked the earth, she would not speak the tongue of women but that of creatures of the glens and forests. Did she roaming among the cliffs still hear the thrashing of the river or the ravens' cries from the mountain crests?

For two years I'd been gone, yet in Montana found no release from memories that I tried but could not evade because they would not die.

"What?" Blackie asked. She lay zipped inside her padded sleeping bag laid out alongside mine, her head resting on a rolled poncho athwart the dip of her western saddle. The coyote's cry had quieted. For a moment a sliver of moon tore at clouds before they dragged at and captured it back.

"Guess I'm going," I said.

"What?" she asked again, rousing and rubbing at her eye.

"Back to Shawnee County."

"And you're the one who swore to hell he never would."

Wild Thorn. Copyright © by William Hoffman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Wild Thorn 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just love William Hoffman's work. He writes mysteries that feel real. The plot isn't some intricate conspiracy that has to be unraveled. It's a loose connection of facts that have to be worked and reworked for the protagonist to make progress. One small shred of evidence leads to the next until he builds a case. People lie to him and he sometimes gets distracted, pretty much like the real world. Hoffman has brought back Charley LeBlanc, the flawed but fascinating main character from his Hammett Award winning Tidewater Blood. Charley is a former Viet Nam vet and convict. He definitely has flaws but to me that's what makes him fascinating. I think the best mysteries are the ones where the detective isn't a cop. Hoffman clearly knows the mountains of West Virginia. Whether it's his vivid description of the land and wildlife, his depictions of the people who inhabit the abandoned coal mine towns or the history of the region, you'll feel you've been there when you finish the book.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Charley LeBlanc comes from a rich and powerful Tidewater, Virginia family, but that doesn¿t mean he had an easy life. His father was a drunken abusive person so Charley left home to join the army and served in Vietnam. He was dishonorably discharged and did hard time in Leavenworth. He finally has his act together living with his lover Mildred ¿Blackie¿ Spurlock in an isolated area of Montana. He and Blackie return to Cliffside in Shawnee County, West Virginia to check up on Aunt Jessie Arbuckle, a woman who befriended him when many others turned their backs on him. He arrives to find Aunt Jessie dead and Esmeralda, a homeless woman who depended on the charity of Shawnee County to feed and clothe her, charged with her murder. Charley knows through the ties that bind him to Esmeralda that the wrong person is locked away and he intends to find the real perpetrator. William Hoffman uses words to convey colorful images in the mind¿s eye so that the reader senses the environment that the flawed protagonist struggles to adapt to so he can have a peaceful life. Charley is an anti-hero who makes very serious mistakes but is likable because of the tenderness he shows to those few people that he cares about. The story line is beautiful in its simplicity but the author writes about complex people who are put in difficult situations and that makes this novel a fabulous read. Harriet Klausner