by Matt Matthews
Hub City Press, Spartanburg, S.C. 218 pages
reviewed by JEFFREY S. KELLAM
Matt Matthews’ first novel “Mercy Creek” is an extraordinary story about a refreshingly ordinary kid. Sixteen-year-old Isaac has no magical powers, but is resourcefully imaginative. He’s no super athlete, but does play some high school baseball. Isaac is no chiseled Romeo, but he has his eyes on two girls, one fading from the scene and the other coming more and more into focus.
Isaac Lawson is the son of the Presbyterian pastor in Rooksville, a fictitious village on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. They are both dealing with the recent death of the beloved anchor of their household, the pastor’s wife, Isaac’s mom. It is summertime, Isaac has a job at Chum’s Hardware, and the town is talking about some troubling vandalism that has seriously damaged three local homes … so far. A citizens’ group is offering a $5,000 reward for information that would lead to the arrest of those responsible for the crimes.
That reward is appealing to this teenager, a kid already bored this early in the summer. While the cozy clique of town elders gathers around the store’s old stove sharing their suspicions about the vandals, Isaac sweeps around them, and silently trumps their ramblings with his own theories. Out back in the warehouse is 77-year-old Eddie Patrick, called “Crazy Eddie” by the locals, mostly because this lifelong employee of Chum’s is a loner, content to make deliveries, do some carpentry and manage the lumber yard, all while minding his own business and preferring that others, including Isaac, mind theirs.
Matthews’ narrative style is filled with just enough detail that we can breathe and see through the dust of the warehouse, suffer the heat of the Virginia summer, meet the colorful (but authentic) townspeople of Rooksville. We readily identify with both Isaac’s adolescent ennui and his adventurous quest to solve the mystery of homes flooded from deliberately stopped-up drains and painted with graffiti images of flames up interior walls. The characters who live near Mercy Creek are well-drawn, never so quirky as small town stereotypes but the same folks most of us who have lived in such villages would easily recognize.
Matthews’ book is one of those rare reads with intergenerational appeal. Younger readers will identify with Isaac, his playful and then dead-serious curiosity, his sense of justice and then mercy, and his losing lovely classmate Jennifer to a summer rival and then his heart set on smiling, shining Kate Bradshaw. Yes, younger readers will “get” Isaac, but so will adults who have any recollection at all of their own teen years.
Readers young and older alike will learn that Rooksville’s neighbors, from the cronies around the store stove to the firefighters and church folk and garden-tenders of a certain generation, share a common history of racial injustice and family tragedy. And it is Isaac who leads the reader into a satisfyingly just resolution.
This is a first novel well-crafted, thoroughly engaging, with touches of gentle humor and helpful insight into a troubling past every reader must bear.
JEFFREY S. KELLAM is an honorably retired Presbyterian teaching elder living in Owego, N.Y.