Sisters Rachel and Helen live in Roam, a place that “felt like the abandoned capital of an ancient civilization: still a wonder to behold, out here in the middle of nowhere, but worn down, broken, nearly empty.”
At 17, Rachel is the younger of the sisters, blind since the age of 3 and cared for by Helen since their parents died in a car accident. Rachel is beautiful, while Helen “was ugly since the day she was born.” Their outsides match their insides: Rachel is pure and kind, and Helen is bitter and needy. She lets her younger sister believe that she is the ugly one, and that the world is too dangerous to ever venture outside of Roam. No one in Roam realizes the cruel hoax Helen has perpetrated, not even Jonah, the hapless local mechanic Helen’s been involved with since he was a teenager.
Rachel and Helen are sure they’ll spend the rest of their days together in Roam, settled by their great-grandfather, who made his fortune by building a silk factory and forcing Chinese immigrants to work for him. But Helen makes a miscalculation one day that gives Rachel the chance to see for herself whether she can survive on her own.
A creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose Big Fish was made into a Tim Burton movie in 2003, Wallace specializes in novels with a tinge of folklore. The Kings and Queens of Roam is a tall-tale jaunt that features a giant lumberjack, a tiny bartender who can see all of Roam’s ghosts (he prefers to call them old-timers) and a doctor convinced he can cure Rachel’s blindness with water from an underground river.
Wallace toggles between two equally compelling stories: that of the sisters and that of their great-grandfather, Elijah McAllister, who exploits his friend Ming Kai to get rich. Set in a mossy, haunted backwoods somewhere in America, this is a whimsical, tender tale about friendship, trust and the price of second chances.