Posted in Publisher Proof

Souls Wax Fair by Kelly Creighton

Powerful men can get away with murder…for only so long.

After a life of hardship, Mary Jane McCord’s life in Rapid City, South Dakota, finally hits a sweet spot. She finds happiness and her singing career takes off. Everything is looking up until she uncovers the dark and secret obsessions of two high-profile men.

Twenty years pass but the people closest to Mary Jane have not forgotten.

Will they bring the truth out into the light?

I had never read this author before and found this latest novel an unusual reading experience. Told in fragments, this is the story of a South Dakota town full of tensions and secrets. There isn’t even one main thread, but what links each fragment and each character is the death of MJ McCord. Mary Jane was as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, more beautiful even some would say. After a difficult and unsettled childhood with mum Marjorie, MJ’s life looks like it’s finally coming good. She’s married to a lovely man who’s older, but gives her kindness, stability and wisdom. He thinks that MJ is beautiful on the inside as well as the outside, and its that inner beauty that captivates him, because it’s a rare thing in his experience. His money helps her with a dream of becoming a singer and she’s just on the cusp of being known. He knows she’s looked elsewhere of late, but it’s her age and he can overlook it. Then he gets some devastating news, MJ goes to a party at the home of one of the town’s superstar football players, Jordan Pinault, but never comes home. It seems that MJ has been playing away with Jordan, they had a row and MJ picked up a gun. She shot herself in the head.

The fragments of the story meander around this event, moving back and forth in time, to people close to MJ and those with only a tangential connection to that tragic night. I’ll be honest and say that first of all I was confused. The structure and order of the chapters doesn’t always make sense and it’s only when you start to get closer to the events of that night, that things become clearer. In fact the sections in the second half of the novel, seem to fit together easier and make more sense. Each fragment is told by a different person, but not everyone uses their given name, instead using a nickname, or they have a Native American name as well as a more Americanised/Anglicised name for work. This confused me even further. However, when it does become clear it’s like a fog lifting. I’m guessing this structure was deliberate and echoes the confusion and layers of half truths around Jordan Pinault and Ricky Nwafo. They have hidden their secrets behind layers of money, respectability, knowing the right people and the hero worship many in the town still have for them.

This town only has a surface sheen. The author shows us how there are people who matter in Rapid City and people who don’t. Despite America claiming not to have a class system, it certainly does have a hierarchy and here it seems the Lakota people are at the bottom of the pile. The Lakota people are also known as Teton Sioux and live the furthest West of any of the Sioux tribes. The author depicts the Lakota as an integral part of the town, but a struggling one. One character remembers being told in school of the ‘Lazy Lakota’ and one of the Lakota characters hates seeing this characteristic in his nephews who sit around in a trailer, drinking most of the day. There is also petty criminality, such as small time drug dealing and theft. We get the impression that discrimination does still exist, in the job market particularly, which leaves Lakota families in poverty compared with the rest of the population.

There’s also a streak of misogyny throughout, with physical and sexual violence still the norm. I felt so deeply for Celena, a Lakota girl who is friends with MJ and crops up at different points in the book. We see her sleeping at parties when she’s younger, in rooms where her unconscious state leaves her very vulnerable. In later years we see her sleeping in the trailer she shares with family, despite the noise of the TV and the kids around her. My first impression, from her teenage years, was that she must be really drunk or perhaps experimenting with drugs? Of course this is other people’s assumption too. Back in her teens, men joke about what they could do to her in this state, and as a woman her family despair of her. In a section narrated by her Uncle, he finds her asleep in their trailer alongside her grandmother, with the TV on and her cousins drinking and shouting in another room. He marvels at how she can sleep in so much noise and calls her lazy. It’s only when we finally hear Celena’s voice that we find out she has narcolepsy, a neurological condition where the brain can no longer regulate the patient’s sleep cycle. She is so used to people not understanding or believing she has a medical condition, that she doesn’t even bother correcting them anymore. Having had secondary narcolepsy, due to having MS and a viral infection, I know how scared and vulnerable it feels to be unable to stop yourself falling asleep. I did it on busy trains, in cafes and even at the opera. Sometimes I could hear everything around me, but couldn’t speak or open my eyes. So my heart went out to her, because once when she feel asleep at a party, her best friend MJ killed herself with a gun. What happens when those half remembered moments start coming back to her?

The author weaves a complex story here and the best thing to do is not worry too much about whether you have the story straight. Just go along with it, from person to person and slowly the truth starts to emerge. There is an incredible sense of place, almost dreamlike in places, but a town immersed in the surrounding nature, especially for the Lakota. There’s a real sense of shabbiness, poverty and sleaze just below the surface. While Jordan and Ricky are just as culpable, the character of town counsellor Beverley Burgess made me feel sick and there were sections that are a hard read. The author showed how certain people become revered in small isolated towns. We know from contemporary cases of rape and abuse that in many cases, ball players are shielded from scrutiny and have the money to afford the best lawyers. In fact it’s this culture of hero worship that allows these crimes to flourish in the first place. There are always people who know the full truth of what’s going on at the time, but no one wants to point the finger at the star. Young ball players have those ideals of being athletic and good looking, popular with girls and can get to good schools with their skills. They are like the alpha males in a town, and ball teams become part of the fabric of society with local sponsorship and charity work. The ball players gain a sense of entitlement that can allow them to mistreat and manipulate others, especially girls who are blinded by their looks and popularity. There is an element of nostalgia and escapism for the spectators, reliving their own past glories or just wishing they’d fulfilled their potential when they were young. I would hope, in the wake of the #MeToo movement that some change has taken place with people looking long and hard as to why they hero worship athletes.

This novel takes a hard look at small town America through this one incident. What is it that’s positive in these small communities, but also what’s missing? If we liken them to areas in the UK, they seem like our old mining communities where the work that’s been guaranteed for generations dries up and people are left in poverty, unable to afford or aspire to university. Young people have to settle for the work that’s available or move away and in these areas there are many young men who yearn to be footballers, boxers, MMA fighters and young women who want to be models, singers or reality TV stars, because it seems more attainable than expensive years of university education. I thought the book was atmospheric, mysterious and complex. It wasn’t like anything else I’ve read this year and left me thinking long after the book ended.

Published 6th May 2022 by Friday Press

Meet the Author


Kelly Creighton facilitates creative writing classes and teaches English as a foreign language. She is the author of the DI Harriet Sloane series, two standalone crime novels (Souls Wax Fair and The Bones of It), two short fiction collections (Bank Holiday Hurricane and Everybody’s Happy), and one book of poetry. Kelly lives with her family in County Down, Northern Ireland.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

“A year never passes without me thinking of them. India. Erica. Their names are stitched inside every white coat I have ever worn. I tell this story to stitch their names inside your clothes, too.”

Wow! This novel absolutely blew me away. In fact I loved it so much that my other half kept asking whether I was ok and I couldn’t understand why, until I looked at the clock and three hours had gone past without me speaking. I was three quarters of the way through the book and even went to bed early so I could finish the story. This writer pulled me in from the very first page and Civil was as real to me as my poor other half. I’ve been interested in eugenics since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on disability and 20th Century literature. I knew a lot about the movement in the U.K., US and Germany in the lead up to WW2, but this book shocked me because I had no idea that forced sterilisations were still happening in the 1960s and 70s. I knew this had happened in earlier in the century with Native American communities, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still happening to African American women, especially where the woman has a disability too. I think this jumped out at me, because people with disabilities are having a very hard time currently, something that able-bodied people aren’t always aware about. For example, the University of York published research in the BMJ Open that concluded the joint impact of cuts to healthcare, public health and social care since 2010 caused at least 57,550 more deaths of disabled people than would normally have been expected between 2010 and 2014. Disability groups place the figure at 120,000 deaths over a seven year period and some activists even think that the government’s COVID policies were based on herd immunity and eugenics. It seems like eugenics never really goes away.

This novel shows how our biases and emotions feed into the work we do within the caring professions. Having worked in mental health and disability as a support worker, advocate and counsellor, I did identify strongly with Civil and the way she became involved with the Williams family. As a nurse, Civil is professional and is aware of things like codes of practice and ethics, but we are never the finished article and Civil’s naïvety plays a huge part in how she works. Civil has been brought up to care for and look after others as part of her Christian faith. However, there are other personal circumstances that she isn’t aware of taking into work with her. Civil’s mother struggles with depression and events that took place in her personal life have also left her vulnerable, particularly where it comes to her nurturing instincts. Her very name brings to mind civil rights, equality and fairness, so it’s not a surprise that where she sees injustice she’s willing to fight. The Williams girls are her very first patients and she is sent out on a home visit to give them a Depo Provera injection, a long term method of contraception. When she notices that India is only 11 years old her brain immediately starts questioning, who put this little girl on this injection, has anyone asked if she has a boyfriend or worse, is she being preyed upon? We are privy to her thoughts and her shock at the way the family are living is evident. Her first thought is that she must do something for them, get them away from the dirty shack where their clothes seem to be stored on the floor. What she does notice is that the girls smell and when she finds out they don’t have sanitary towels, she decides to buy some for them from her own money. This is the first line crossed and although Civil’s actions are generous and could change the family’s lives for the better, it’s a boundary crossed. This makes it so much easier to cross even further as time goes on.

I thought the author grasped the complexity of Civil’s feelings and her role in the girl’s lives beautifully. Civil knows that she should be following instructions, asking her supervisor the questions that have come to mind, and advocating for the girls. Yet she knows that just by talking to the right people and calling in a few favours she could get the girls some clothes, find a job for their father, perhaps get them a new flat in town. What she doesn’t realise is that she’s acting from a bias, not racism but a classism of sorts. Civil’s parents are a doctor and an artist, they live in a nice home and have a certain status. She has walked in to the Williams’s home and assumed they want to move, go to school, and have better things. She’s looking at them through her own world view, instead of moving into theirs and then takes their agency away by filling in forms on their behalf. Her heart is in the right place, but she’s mothering the girls; the girls have lost their mother and Civil has maternal feelings to spare. It’s a co-dependent dynamic that could get complicated and painful on both sides. Her nursing instinct is to gain the girl’s trust and find out who put them on contraceptive injections, especially when India hasn’t even started her period. There are no boys around where they live and neither girl goes to school. As she confides in fellow nurse Alicia and friend Ty, they start doing some research. There are many conclusions they could draw: the federal government could be experimenting on poor black communities; there could be a programme of stopping certain groups in society from reproducing; the government are leaving local employees to make decisions based on their own biases about poor communities; their supervisor believes the Williams girls aren’t safe and could be open to abuse from within the family. All are based on so many assumptions, but what was angering me was that no one had sat down with the family and asked the questions about the girl’s development, access to the opposite sex, or India’s ability to make decisions. Life changing decisions are being made, based on judgments made with no real evidence.

Judgement is at the heart of this terrible case, I won’t reveal more about the decisions made, but it does lead to a court case and repercussions for everyone involved. The colour of the family’s skin, their poverty and the death of the girl’s mother has led to assumptions about the girl’s morals and safety but also the possibility that a black man is not safe, even around his own children. India is non-verbal, but whether that’s through trauma or a learning disability is not clear. Civil’s superiors have decided that it would be disastrous to bring a child into this family, but it’s amazing to see how much the Williams do change over the course of the novel. Civil has taken the decision to act on behalf of the girls, rather than making suggestions and motivating them to advocate for themselves. The changes we see in them, just from having different surroundings, is incredible. Civil believes that we adjust our standards according to where are in life, so once their home becomes a clean, dry space they start to look after it. Civil’s happiness when she sees the girl’s grandmother has bought guest towels for the bathroom is so funny, because these are her standards, what she sees as the correct way to do things, without question. I could see her attachment to the girls growing, the way she brings her support network into their lives also leaves their lives further enmeshed with hers. How will they separate themselves? If Civil takes their part in their court case, she may lose everything, so what happens when the Williams start to have confidence to make their own decisions? What if Mace meets a woman – a potential stepmom for the girls? I wondered if Civil would cope were these girls taken away from her, whether by her work or by changes in the Williams’s circumstances.

The author weaves fact into fiction so seamlessly here, with contemporary medical research questioned and the family’s meeting with real life senator Teddy Kennedy. This grounds the book beautifully and it feels even more true to life; the girls aren’t real, but I’m guessing that this story could be the reality for many poor, young, African American women. I thought Civil’s home life was really interesting, especially when her Aunty arrived and talked plainly about her Mum’s depression. Even in a household where there are always guest towels, there are struggles and issues that are overlooked, either due lack of understanding or through avoidance of something too painful to acknowledge. In fact there’s a way this whole episode is fuelled by avoidance, because if Civil buried herself in this family’s trouble she could avoid her own loss. The present day sections are evidence of that avoidance, because we see Civil finally having to confront and process feelings long buried. She’s close to retirement, yet is still haunted by what happened back then. There are positives in her visit back home, in that her relationships have adjusted so there’s more equality with some people than there was back then. I was left with a sense of how incredible women are, the strength we have to survive life altering circumstances and what can be achieved when we support each other.

Meet The Author

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the New York Times bestselling author of WENCH, BALM, and the forthcoming TAKE MY HAND. *USA Today* called WENCH “deeply moving” and “beautifully written.” *People* called it “a devastatingly beautiful account of a cruel past.” *O, The Oprah Magazine* chose it as a Top Ten Pick of the Month, and NPR named it a top 5 book club pick of 2010. Dolen’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, StorySouth, and elsewhere. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Dolen received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her second novel BALM. Publishers Weekly writes “Her spare, lyrical voice is unsentimental yet compassionate.” Library Journal writes “No sophomore slump is in evidence here. Readers who were captivated by Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, Wench, will be intrigued by the post–Civil War lives of three Southern transplants to Chicago.” Dolen is an Associate Professor of Literature at American University. A graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA, Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family.