Sally Whitney, Surface and Shadow. Pen-L Publishing, 2016, ISBN: 978-1-942428-98-5, 310 pages. Price $14.97. Reviewed by Emily Grace.
Surface and Shadow is aptly titled.
As readers enter the small town of Tanner, North Carolina, it becomes clear that there is more to the town and its residents than what is initially apparent, and that certain truths in this town are better left untouched if the status quo and the secrets that accompany it are to remain hidden.
This is a book about a suspicious death. This is a book about gender politics in the 1970s South. This is a book about marriage and change. But most importantly, this is a book about truth, be it hidden or revealed, painful or liberating, visible on the surface or hiding in shadow.
Surface and Shadow follows Lydia Colton as she searches to uncover truths about Tanner and her place within the town. After moving there to support the career of her husband, Lydia soon finds herself stifled by the rigid gender roles to which her husband and the town ask her to adhere. Lydia, desperate to find something of her own, latches on to the solving the local mystery: what really happened when Howard Galloway died?
Decades before, Howard Galloway, heir to the prosperous cotton mill, died from drinking poisoned moonshine and his twin brother Henry assumed control of the mill. Although overt speculation about the case remains taboo in the town, rumors that Henry killed his brother to gain control of the fortune still circulate. Intrigued, Lydia begins asking questions.
It does not take long before she becomes obsessed with unearthing the Galloway family secret, but this obsession comes at a price. She risks the anger of Henry Galloway in her search, which leads to complications in her marriage; if Henry wanted, he could destroy her husband’s career, a fact which Jeff Colton is acutely aware. But Lydia cannot be deterred, and her persistence takes readers on a journey as they too try to find out what happened all those years ago, and what the truth means for present-day life in Tanner.
Sally Whitney constructs a well-written, character-driven mystery in her debut novel that is utterly immersive. Her characters are dynamic and nuanced, her setting detailed and believable. She breathes life into Tanner, North Carolina, and its residents in a genre that often values fast-paced action over character development.
This is not to imply that Surface and Shadow lacks the action and suspense necessary for a mystery however. The risk that searching for the truth presents for both the Coltons and the Galloways is palpable in the ever-present sense of dread that undergirds the actions of the characters. Fortune, future, and family all hang in the balance of Lydia’s discovery and at no point in the narrative is this forgotten.
Another strength for which I must commend Surface and Shadow is the seemingly effortless layering of storylines that takes place within its pages. This is not a one-note whodunit. Although the solving of the mystery is important, there are secondary and even tertiary storylines that are interwoven with the traditional sleuthing narrative. Whitney highlights Lydia’s conflict with the expectations imposed upon her gender, paints a complex picture of the complications in marriage, and most importantly, illustrates the change a person can discover within the self. These layers add a level of sophistication to the mystery, making it a must-read for anyone who has questioned surface-level assumptions and searches for the truth found within shadows.
© Sally Whitney and Emily Grace
Sally Whitney has spent most of her adult life in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, and New Jersey, but her imagination lives in the South, the homeland of her childhood. “Whenever I dream of a story,” she says, “I feel the magic of red clay hills, magnolia trees, soft voices, sudden thunder storms, and rich emotions. The South is a wonderland of mysteries, legends, and jokes handed down through generations of family storytellers, people like me.” The stories Sally writes have been published in literary magazines and anthologies, including Grow Old Along With Me—The Best Is Yet To Be, the audio version of which was a Grammy Award finalist in the Spoken Word or Nonmusical Album category. Her stories have also been recognized by the Syndicated Fiction Project and the Salem College National Literary Awards competition. In nonfiction, she’s worked as a public relations writer, freelance journalist, and editor of Best’s Review magazine. Her articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers, including St. Anthony Messenger, The Kansas City Star, AntiqueWeek, and Our State: Down Home in North Carolina. Sally currently lives in Maryland with her cat, Ivy Rowe, and is delighted to be once again residing below the Mason-Dixon line. When she isn’t writing, reading, watching movies, or attending plays, she likes to poke around in antique shops looking for treasures. “The best things in life are the ones that have been loved, whether by you or somebody else,” she says. Surface and Shadow is her first novel.
Emily Grace is an English student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has previously worked as an assistant editor for the Baltimore-based publishing house BrickHouse Books and as a technical writer for the Engineers Without Border Chapter at UMBC. She aspires to edit and write professionally.