McHugh begins her (first) novel with the discovery of the mutilated body of Cheri Stoddard, a sweet, somewhat retarded girl and friend of one of the narrators, Lucy Dane. But Cheri’s story, it turns out, is less important than Lucy’s attempt to unravel the mystery of her mother’s, Lila’s, death shortly after Lucy’s birth. That is, Cheri’s death is part of a larger mystery.
As an Ozarks book, The Weight of Blood is rather good with flora and fauna and what might be called historical lore. Did you know, for instance, that a cat will suckle a newborn ’possum, or that hogs go crazy for persimmons? On the other hand, McHugh’s characterizations of men are kind of stereotypical: the good ones are passive and go along with what women want, while the men who are bad, and they are very bad, are sexually violent and depraved.
Apparently, though they might claim otherwise, people eat this stuff up.
Chief among the latter sort of man is Lucy’s Uncle Crete, a clever-but-brutal businessman with many an ugly rumor trailing him, including that he runs a backwoods white slavery—one might as well say, white trash—operation between the little town of Henbane and Springfield. McHugh mostly just hints darkly about this operation, but her sex scenes, including a rape, are graphic and well done. In fact, though McHugh’s men don’t ring altogether true, the way in which her women relate to them is intimate and affecting.
As for the women, McHugh pulls off the rather unusual feat of narrating her story from the points of view of both Lila and Lucy, mother and daughter, twenty years apart, and they are convincingly different. Lucy has grown up in a stable environment, raised by her single dad, Carl—Clete’s brother. She’s a typical teenager in some ways, with boys on the brain and college in her future, and she has a nice young man, Daniel, to accompany her in her sleuthing.
Lila, on the other hand, is a portrait in desperation. She’s an orphan from Iowa with no resources, and signs up for a kind of indenture in southern Missouri. She’s strikingly beautiful and that’s her appeal for Crete, who wants her for himself at first and then tries to turn her into a prostitute. Luckily for her, Carl wants to marry her, which will lend respectability to Lucy’s birth. But Lila will die anyhow in a dramatic confrontation, brilliantly staged in an old moonshiner’s cave. Some allusions here, intentional or not, to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Lucy, who reminds one just a little of a Nancy Drew caught up a world full of debauchery, solves her mystery, and grows up some, too, as she unravels all the secrets about her mother, and learns why they were secret. This is not my kind of story, because I don’t like how McHugh portrays men and don’t often read mysteries, but what do I know? On amazon, The Weight of Blood boasts—count them—518 reader reviews. That’s extraordinary.