Julia Keller's debut mystery, A Killing in the Hills, introduced prosecuting attorney Belfa “Bell” Elkins and the small Appalachian town of Acker's Gap, West Virginia. In Summer of the Dead, Keller's third mystery set in Acker's Gap, Bell faces a new murderer, as well as family challenges and the burdens of the coal mining community.
The opening acknowledgements in Summer of the Dead hint at a heartbreaking story: "Some years ago I met the wise and stalwart wife of a coal miner in McDowell County, West Virginia. She had created a place for her husband under the big kitchen table; because of his many years spent working underground, and injuries to his spine, he was only comfortable in a crouching position. The story has haunted me ever since, and it inspired a key element of this novel."
Keller shed some light on this inspiration and the questions and challenges of caretaking.
A sick old man who lives in the perpetual twilight of an ancient cellar. A wayward sister trying to find herself after three decades in prison. A woman with a serious mental illness who hates being a burden to her husband.
Those people live in and around Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, the setting for my new novel, Summer of the Dead. They happen to be fictional, but in their incompleteness, their neediness, they embody a real-life dilemma of our times: caretaking. How much should we do for others? What do we owe our aging parents, our troubled siblings or spouses or friends, our children in crisis? At what point do our efforts on behalf of others actually do more harm than good—as we rob those we assist of the opportunity to develop their own strengths and inner resources? As a nation, we wonder if a surfeit of government aid might be creating a culture of dependency.
So many people I know are wrestling with these questions in their own lives. They have parents who can no longer live on their own. Or children in their 20s who can’t find jobs, hence return home. And thus when I sat down to write the third book in my mystery series set in a tattered town in the Appalachian foothills, I decided to explore the question that haunts so many of us: When it comes to loved ones in need, how can we strike a balance between helping and also preserving an individual’s dignity?
Make no mistake: Summer of the Dead is a murder mystery, and there are the requisite unsolved homicides and desperate searches for the bad guys (or gals). But as a reader, I’ve always been drawn to stories that are told obliquely, that require us to do more than merely follow the surface maneuverings of a plot. I admire Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (2001) for its superbly drawn characters and headlong narrative—but also for its nuanced analysis of the crushing weight of class differences in a big city like Boston. Tana French’s Broken Harbor (2012) is a marvelous piece of crime fiction—and a heartbreaking depiction of the psychological impact of the housing crisis that accompanied the recent global recession, when homes in which people had poured their life savings suddenly were almost worthless. “Broke can lead people to places they would never have imagined,” muses French’s narrator. “It can scour away a lifetime of mild, peaceful decency until all that’s left is teeth and claws and terror.”
A novel always has two stories to tell: What happens—and why it’s happening. That second story is often the more interesting one. In Summer of the Dead, the characters must make agonizing decisions about how much to help those whom they love. If they do too little, they feel selfish; if they do too much, they risk feeling put-upon, filled with bitterness and resentment. And a long-simmering resentment can lead the human soul into some dark and lethal places.