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The Mysteries of Mississippi

Life in the small town of Steve Yarbrough's latest novel is anything but ordinary.

Book Cover Mississipian Steve Yarbrough’s Prisoners of War is a novel to which I regularly make reference as one that is vastly underappreciated—though now having read four of his novels, I want to suggest that this Southern storyteller deserves a wider readership. And it is possible that his newest effort, Safe from the Neighbors (Knopf), may bring that about.

As usual this story is set in Yarbrough’s native Mississippi (“When you’ve grown up in Mississippi, why would you want to write about anyplace else?”). We see the small town of Loring from the point of view of native son Luke May, high school history teacher, who, having been mentored by the town’s liberal newspaper publisher (meaning he was an advocate of integration), feels obliged to teach his (oblivious) students about that (civil rights) era.

Luke’s life is unhinged by the return of a childhood friend whose family was fractured by her father’s violence—on the night in 1962 when fierce civil disturbance broke out on the Ole Miss campus and around Oxford when a black man, James Meredith, enrolled at the previously segregated university. Not surprisingly there is a connection between personal and historic events. The decades-old family violence was never satisfactorily investigated or explained (note that I am dancing around more specific details) and soon Luke is digging into all manner of forgotten and ignored details. Naturally, what he discovers is nowhere proximal to his expectations, including how he views his father, who is saddled with caring for Luke’s mother, who is totally disabled and was a moderating influence in the family as Luke grew up.

One of Yarbrough’s talents is to create stories in which one is inclined to care about his characters and empathize with their travails and occasional triumphs. In this novel, Luke’s life runs off the rails; given the central incident of the story, perhaps it was foretold. Which is something to mull over as you become familiar with Loring (the fictional Indianola), Miss., and the humans that inhabit it.
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