This novel tells the really poignant tale of a town and its inhabitants in rural Montana. Without any profanity or pornography, the story is simply told well.
Petroleum is slowly withering away and so are its residents. When a terrible accident occurs at the town’s grain elevator, it takes the life of Eddie Golden, a recent high school graduate. The tragedy changes the outlook of the town forever and its death knell tolls. When Eddie falls into the grain elevator and is suffocated, his 14-year old younger brother, Robert, remains helplessly dangling above for hours, in his harness. No one comes to cut him down. He is left to swing painfully as the harness cut into his flesh, because everyone blamed him for the catastrophe. After his screams for help went unanswered, he began to understand that he was being punished. The life’s blood of the town had just been drained, and they knew it no longer had a future. Soon, Robert, totally ostracized, would have to leave town. Mary Crampton, the daughter of the town’s funeral director, had witnessed the rescue effort. She was only a child, at the time.
The years pass and Allen Crampton, a single parent, is the owner of the funeral home. His daughter Mary, now 30, is the embalmer. She had wanted to be an artist, but her dreams were thwarted by his needs and dreams for her, so instead of following her own dreams, she transferred her talent and artistic drive to her skill in making the dead look as well in death as they did in life. She believes that they have become her canvas. Being raised in a funeral home made Mary a pariah. She was a strange child who was ostracized and avoided, much the same as Robert Golden was, but she seemed to adjust to it, enjoying her lonely life and her solitude. As a child, she had often played alone because children were not permitted to play with her where she lived. When Mary played, she often pretended her dolls were dead bodies, and she tended to them with compassion.
Most parents did not want their children to play in a mortuary. So the children learned to fear her because she lived in the funeral home, and they knew that she also often lived in close proximity to the dead. Both Robert Golden and Mary Crampton were unusual children who were often forced to be alone as they were rejected by the other kids. The children learned how to be cruel from their parents and they bullied and shamed Robert and Mary with taunts and nasty names.
As the book proceeds, it becomes obvious that the townspeople were largely self-sufficient, relying on each other in their remote, rural town, but they were also still angry, holding onto their resentment of Robert because of the closure of the grain elevator years before . There were no distractions, no ways to move on, no new jobs. They didn’t even have a move theater. The major entertainment outlets were the local high school teams. As a town basketball hero, Eddie’s loss was felt by everyone, and they disregarded the needs of the 14-year old brother consumed with guilt about his own loss.
Mary and Robert had never been friends. Both had muddled through their lives as outsiders in their home town. When Robert’s mother became seriously ill, he returned to Petroleum to help her. His presence was resented by all except for Mary. Soon, they found their way to each other, developing a friendship which empowered Mary to finally grow up and leave the clutches of her father, the town and its people. It is a moving story that will engage and touch the hearts of the readers as they watch the characters deal with their lives, their losses and their dreams.