Nighthawk’s Song, by Charles Fergus. Hardcover, 273 pages. Published by Arcade Publishing, Crime Wise. $25.99.
Reviewed by Tena Starr
Nighthawk’s Wing, the second in Charles Fergus’ Gideon Stoltz mystery series, is, to start with, a beautifully written and gripping page-turner. But it’s more than that. Mr. Fergus, a native of Pennsylvania who now lives in the Northeast Kingdom, also offers a rich journey into another culture and time.
And perhaps, most importantly, he gently urges us to look at what it can mean to be “other” — from a different place, with unusual abilities, a loner, or just someone who doesn’t tidily fit into someone else’s idea of norm. The victim here doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of norm, which may not have led to her death but does lead to the community’s view of it.
Gideon Stoltz is the young, Pennsylvania Dutch Sheriff of Adamant, Pennsylvania, married to True, a woman who claims to have second sight. Her husband’s skepticism isn’t helping their relationship, which is already strained following the death of their young son from influenza. Then a challenging case lands in Gideon’s lap.
The time is 1836, a young woman has turned up dead in a nearby settlement, and he must investigate. Is it murder? Suicide? An accidental death from ingesting the wrong plant? The woman is suspected by some of witchcraft, or at the very least of having an uncommon knowledge of how to use plants to brew potions, for good or ill.
The case is further complicated by the fact that Sheriff Stoltz is suffering from memory loss and other symptoms of concussion following a bad spill from his horse. To his dismay, he gradually realizes that he’s met the dead woman and likely was at her home the night she died. Why, or what exactly happened, he can’t recall, making him a suspect in his own case.
What follows is a sophisticated historical novel with complex characters and a twisty-turny plot.
(As an aside, this writer is a reader of murder mysteries, and reading Mr. Fergus’ novels, I find myself thinking, oh, for god’s sakes, why don’t you just check for fingerprints? Oh, right, we’re in 1836. Forensics doesn’t exist.)
There’s brutality in this story, but also fragility, tenderness, and the well-meant fumblings that can come with our efforts to love.
But prevalent is that suspicion of other, of different — earlier landowners are suspicious of the new farmers, and those farmers are worried about how they’re perceived by their neighbors. Sheriff Stolz isn’t, himself, always accepted because of his own Dutch roots, and everyone is suspicious of the lovely young woman who shows up and wanders alone collecting her plants and spurning all male advances.
Is she a witch? The more generous might view her as a healer. In this country, there’s often been a fine line between the two.
But whatever else she is, she’s not aligned herself with church, state, man, or family. She’s gone her independent way.
Mr. Fergus writes: “’Some of them feared her,’ Gideon said. ‘They called her a witch.’
“’She didn’t have much to do with others. She never joined their church. She went around by herself gathering plants.’
“Gideon Burns snorted. ‘I’ve been called a witch. And my ma before me. People can be downright ignorant. Mind you, I’m not saying there aren’t witches in this world. But people are too fearful by a long shot. Too quick to judge.’”
The characters in Nighthawk’s Song are well drawn, some of them being the sort you don’t want to say good bye to at the end of the book — my own favorite being True’s grandmother, another strong and independent woman.
Mr. Fergus, previously a writer of nonfiction, is a horseman, a man versed in botany, guns, hunting, and history. All of that knowledge is put to use here. He imparts it quietly, incorporating it into the story seamlessly, as the best storytellers do. Not a hint of “instruction,” just the skillful weaving of sometimes arcane information so readers eventually realize they’ve inadvertently learned something.
Foxglove can kill you, but it’s also a remedy for heart trouble (digitalis is its Latin name, and anyone who’s had heart disease has likely heard that word). Cowbane kills fast. White snakeroot can poison a cow’s milk — and the person who drinks it.
And there are random bits, as well. For instance, I’d never considered why a prison is often called a penitentiary. We learn that the “enlightened” prison administrators of the era concluded that prisoners should be held in solitude, apparently to reflect on their sins, thus repent and improve. Penitents, they were, living in penitentiaries. It’s a wonder that brilliant plan didn’t produce an entire generation of madmen.
Mr. Fergus has written an entertaining and memorable story about people and events in a specific time and place but also one that transcends both. Perhaps we’re not suspecting our neighbors of witchcraft these days, but suspicion of difference, in one form or another, remains.
Nighthawk’s Song is a novel well worth reading, for many reasons, a rich and moving story that puts Mr. Fergus solidly among the ranks of Vermont’s best fiction writers.