magine if you and your nearest neighbors had chalkboards hanging outside your homes and rather than communicating by talking, you wrote messages to each other on these boards. While the medium might be somewhat limiting, curtailing "dialogue" to brief missives, it might prove liberating in other ways. Without having to risk a face-to-face confrontation, or the entanglement of a protracted conversation, people might feel free to speak their minds, airing issues perhaps as openly as in the traditional chat over a cup of coffee or as curtly as the rigid warning sign, "Beware of Dog." Melinda Haynes uses this peculiar, yet intriguing premise to create an isolated and bizarre setting for her riveting new novel, Chalktown. The mysterious aura of Chalktown beckons Hezekiah Sheehand, a 16-year-old boy who literally and figuratively has "the weight of the world on his shoulders." One day he cuts school, bundles his mentally and physically disabled little brother, Yellababy, on his back, and heads out to visit this curious, small village.

From this simple beginning, Haynes weaves a provocative tale that intertwines the lives of her numerous characters, each struggling toward some measure of peace and self-respect. Before Hezekiah even sets out for Chalktown, we are introduced to Susan Blair, his abusive mother, who fills their shabby home with other people's cast-off clothing to sell on consignment, and Marion Calhoun, the Sheehand's black neighbor who is treated with derision by his white neighbors. As Hezekiah makes his way to Chalktown, the plot and list of characters expands like ripples from a stone thrown in a lake, but Haynes masterfully reins the ripples in, tying diverse elements like love and murder, racism and romance, kindness and cruelty into a cohesive, fascinating tale of hope and redemption.

Readers who reveled in the artistry of Hayne's debut novel, Mother of Pearl (a highly acclaimed, New York Times bestseller and Oprah book club selection) will be no less impressed with Chalktown, a stunning second book which reaffirms Haynes' stature as a gifted writer and incredible storyteller. If I had a chalkboard outside my home and my neighbors were anxiously awaiting my words of wisdom regarding Haynes' latest book, I would simply go outside, pick up my chalk and write, "Wow!" Linda Stankard writes from Cookeville, Tennessee.

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