Bitter Sun by Beth Lewis
It all started when we found the body.
Then nothing was ever the same.
The Dry meets Stand by Me and True Detective in this stunningly written tale of the darkness at the heart of a small mid-Western town and the four kids who uncover it.
In the heatwave summer of 1971, four kids find a body by a lake and set out to solve a murder. But they dig too deep and ask too many questions.
Larson is a town reeling in the wake of the Vietnam draft, where the unrelenting heat ruins the harvest, and the people teeter on the edge of ruin.
As tension and paranoia run rife, rumours become fact, violence becomes reflex. The unrest allows the dark elements of the close-knit farming community to rise and take control.
And John, Jenny, Gloria and Rudy are about to discover that sometimes secrets are best left uncovered…
‘I killed her’
Bitter Sun is a novel that begins in a heatwave of 1971 and ends in summer 1973. It takes place in the rural town of Larson and the Vietnam war and its impact on small rural communities sets the backdrop for the novel.
The novel follows brother and sister John and Jenny and their childhood friends Gloria and Rudy. They discover the body of a female murder victim, which the town is quick to hush up! Too quick for John and Jenny’s liking and they set out to unmask the killer. John names the victim Mora, and Jenny is unusually drawn to her and her possibly background. Who is she?
‘It was the drink. It was the sickness. Not my momma, not really’
John and Jenny Royal have an alcoholic and abusive mother. She openly favours John and systemically physically and mentally abuses Jenny. The kids are bullied at school and rumoured as ‘freaks’. John tries to protect his sister the best he can, but it is 1971 and he is just a kid!
When the police don’t take the case seriously, he turns to Pastor Jacobs.
But is the Pastor a friend or a predator himself?
‘We have to find out who she is and who hurt her.
Someone has to’ – Gloria
John and Jenny’s mother appears changed after the news of the murder. However, the change never lasts long, with alcoholics.
The kids have what they refer to as ‘pigeon Pa’s’ a series of men that come in and out of their mother’s life. But they aren’t the only kids in Larson to have abusive family members, unfortunately. . .
Rudy lives in poverty, he has a lonely and abusive homelife. There is a specific scene of Rudy being abandoned at Christmas which brought tears to my eyes. A further scene of violent child abuse left me sobbing and Rudy nursing a broken arm. Rudy becomes convinced his father has something to do with the murder and he is desperate to expose him.
The barren landscape is written brilliantly, you can easily imagine this bleak town impacted by war and poverty.
‘Dozens went. A handful came back’
It describes the returning Vietnam veterans as ghosts of their former selves. As stated this creates a fantastic backdrop for this similarly haunting and bleak story.
As months roll by with no leads, no ID and no new news. The kids grow impatient. Jenny vows that as soon as she is old enough, she’ll leave Larson. The bullying by her mother continues, growing more and more vicious.
With a local car accident resulting in the deaths of two local teens and the Easton mill going up in flames the people of Larson move on with their lives.
John, Jenny, Rudy and Gloria do not.
This novel is a ‘coming of age’ under the harshest of circumstances.
A protective brother, a mother seeking validation from men and a scared little girl. 4.5*