Show Me Good Land

Show Me Good Land
Shonna Milliken Humphrey
Down East Books

This seems to be the season for debut novels about druggies and back-breaking farm labor in northern Maine. On the heels of Bollard columnist Crash Barry’s Sex, Drugs & Blueberries comes Shonna Milliken Humphrey’s Show Me Good Land. There’s not nearly as much sex, though there are plenty of drugs, and it’s potatoes, not blueberries, being harvested in Humphrey’s fictional Fort Angus, up near the Canadian border.

When Show Me Good Land begins, we learn that there’s been a murder in a trailer park. The son of the deceased woman, a meth-dealing wife-beater named Odie Hollander, is in jail when he gets the news. His dear mother had been scheming to sell ten grand worth of OxyContin to spare her darling son an extra four months in the county lockup, but someone knocked her off and stole the pills before that could happen.

It doesn’t matter who did it. Humphrey’s book is not a crime thriller or mystery. The real mystery here is why we should care about these scumbags, and after 200 pages I still hadn’t found a good answer.

Hollander figures out who the murderer is right away, but keeps this information to himself and promptly disappears for most of the rest of the book. He reappears at the end to give the perpetrator a beat-down in the jail’s community room, and then reconciles with the baby-momma he beat up to get locked up in the first place. It’s not a heartwarming moment.

The local cop suspects the dead woman’s nephew, Emmett Pratt, whose trailer borders his aunt’s, on the absurd theory that Pratt stabbed her to death so he could double the size of his pitiful patch of dirt. The reader never shares this suspicion. For one thing, this member of the Pratt clan is apparently the only male resident of Fort Angus who’s not on drugs. For another, thanks to his strong work ethic, thriftiness, and some highly improbable investment decisions, this gas station manager is actually a millionaire. (He keeps his fortune a secret from everyone so his brother won’t steal his change to buy weed. He keeps living in a trailer and pumping gas because … well, he doesn’t seem to know what else to do.)

Good Land is not a good book. The plot is buried beneath a confusing mish-mash of character sketches and scraps of scenes that lead nowhere. And any sense of narrative is obliterated by Humphrey’s maddening habit of jumping back and forth in time. The author’s attempts to tie these tangled lines into a coherent story is clumsily handled.

Chapter 8 begins: “On the same August day that Peg Shane’s girls hitched a ride to the quarry pit, and well before Rhetta Ballou received the call that Wendy Jo was in crisis, prompting her early morning drive home to Fort Angus, Miles Compton had no idea that he’d later play a role in solving Sheila Hollander’s murder. All he knew was that his mother’s car needed an oil change, and that after today, his father would be living in the Fort Angus facility for the elderly.”

Well, at least we got that straight.

There’s certainly some literary value in writing about the impoverished people of this part of Maine, but you need an interesting story upon which to hang these characters. Humphrey has captured the seediness, hopelessness and boredom of Aroostook County life. In Good Land, she’s just done too good a job conveying that last part.

— Chris Busby

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