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Bookmonger: Soldier comes home to real and imagined horrors

“Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff

A day after I learned of the passing of Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I experienced an eerie sensation when I cracked open the covers of Seattle novelist Matt Ruff’s new book, “Lovecraft Country,” and read the first word of the first chapter. It was a name: Atticus.

Unlike Atticus Finch, the iconic white, middle-aged protagonist of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Ruff’s Atticus Turner is a young black Army veteran. Nonetheless, each of these characters contends with American racism.

Ruff’s obvious nod to another writer from earlier in the 20th century, Howard Philip Lovecraft, is embedded in the “Lovecraft Country” title; and because Lovecraft is known for writing about horror and black magic, and because of the coincidence of Lee’s passing, I confess I felt a bit of a chill traveling up my spine.

Ruff’s book is set in 1950s America. Atticus Turner has come back from the horror of Korea, and is discharged from the Army in Florida. He buys a used car and navigates through the Jim Crow South to return home in Chicago. He isn’t exactly eager to get back — his mother is dead and he’s always had a complicated relationship with his father — but his dad has sent him a cryptic message about his birthright, and Atticus feels duty-bound to go see him.

But when he arrives home, he discovers that his father has disappeared.

Atticus, with the help of his Uncle George, figures out that his dad may have headed to Massachusetts — “Lovecraft country” — home of the Puritans who burned witches at the stake. Something smells fishy, so they feel compelled to go after him. They are accompanied by Atticus’ childhood friend, Letitia, who is at loose ends now that her fortune-telling mother has died.

The three navigate their way east with the help of “The Safe Negro Travel Guide,” a publication Uncle George has put out to help black travelers avoid encounters with racist-run gas stations, diners, and motels.

Even so, they run into trouble here and there — which is why they are dubious when they are welcomed so warmly upon their arrival at their destination, an estate run by the white-skinned Braithwaite family, and that purportedly once was owned by one of Atticus’ ancestors. The travelers’ doubts are confirmed when they realize that Atticus’ father is being held prisoner by a secret sect that is convening at the estate.

Ruff knits a complicated, multi-hued, multi-generational tale of extended family, sorcery, fantasy, space travel, Greek mythology and horror. He weaves together the stories of sons, cousins, sisters, friends, parents, aunts and uncles who, through their individual efforts, move the plot toward a rousing conclusion.

This is an ambitious tale that stuffs a lot of hexes and potions and apparitions in with the everyday injustices perpetrated by racism. It seems an odd mix, especially coming from a white author. But for all of his entertaining diversions, Ruff makes some pretty sharp observations about America’s history of resilience versus intolerance.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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