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THE HANGING WOODS by Scott Loring Sanders

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You know that feeling you get when you pass a particularly horrific accident?  It’s not that you want someone to be hurt, but you can’t help slowing down to look. That’s how I felt as I began reading this book.

The year is 1975, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. Times are tough. Tempers flare and the stress level is high. There are many historical elements that firmly root this story in this time period, yet the events and emotions in this story are not relegated to the 70’s. Knowing this human condition exists today, gives this story even more impact.

Scott Loring Sanders deftly places the reader into the mind of thirteen year old Walter. Through Walter, the reader will experience the killing of a fox up close and personal. I could feel the fear and panic of the fox as he struggled against the trap. I felt the life energy of that fox dissipate into nothing through the handle of the stick used to beat him senseless, and I felt both Walter’s revulsion and thrill over his first kill. His grandfather had insisted on this savage method.  He told Walter, “…you gotta learn the hard way, really feel it with your hands, so you can appreciate the easy way.”

This first chapter sets the tone of the book. Disturbing, you say? Absolutely.  Fascinating? Positively! I read on, I’ll admit, with some trepidation, as a reader who neither hunts, nor appreciates the feeling of satisfaction that hunters must feel when taking their prize, a foreigner to this male world of violence and dominance.

Meet Walter’s friends. Jimmy is the leader who’s rough around the edges, chiseled and hardened at the hands of his abusive, alcoholic father. Mothball’s the chubby oddball who aims to become famous by beheading a chicken in just the right way so that he, Mothball, can keep it alive for over 18 months and therefore, beat the Guinness Book record. As you might imagine, he’s subjected to more than his share of pranks and jokes, which makes him even more determined to succeed.

The boys walk the town in the wee hours of the morning as they pull off ever-escalating pranks on the local townspeople. To prove to one another that they aren’t chicken, the risk and fear factors are taken up a notch each night. They venture further toward the Hanging Woods, Niggertown, and the Troll, a homeless Vietnam War veteran. When Troll sees them, they race home, adrenaline pumping, fear lighting a fire beneath their feet. But neither Jimmy nor Mothball knows Walter’s secret, that Troll knows him. He called him by name!

The temperament of a thirteen year old around his parents is, by design, often volatile and argumentative. These are the times that teens must decide for themselves who they are and who they want to be. They examine the values their parents have tried to teach and compare them with the values their parents have shown. They are bombarded with the voices and opinions of their peers and walk a tightrope between what they are coming to believe about the world, and what they have been taught to believe. Imagine the turmoil Walter must feel when his safety net is snatched away the day he reads the secrets in his mother’s diary. Walter’s interpretation of those events results in his slow unraveling. The shift in the foundation of his world leaves Walter feeling unable to do anything more than stand by and let the darkness inside take over.

Other reviews have compared this book to TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD by Harper Lee and I see the similarities. Certainly the author has nailed the social atmosphere of the time, an interesting statement in itself, since the two books are set forty years apart. Both books masterfully address cruelty, hate, and prejudice, and both feature an innocent character on trial who makes the perfect target, in part, because they are reclusive and strange, the criminal stereotype. But for me, the similarities end there. Where Atticus Finch patiently strives to teach and show high moral values, the parents in THE HANGING WOODS are equally dysfunctional, instead teaching their son anger, frustration, and resignation.

As I read this book, I was strangely reminded of the classic movie, THE CHRISTMAS STORY, but without the light humor. Both feature rough, real-men-don’t-cry type fathers, apologetic, coddling mothers, and sons struggling to find their place in their family and the world. In both, you become immersed in the strange world of guy bonding; fathers attempting to grow their sons up tough.

THE HANGING WOODS is a riveting look into a disturbed mind. I doubt I will soon forget the images and emotions Scott Loring Sanders brought forth in this, his first, novel. I warn you, this is a dark, troubling read that will niggle at your conscience for days, if not weeks. But if you’re like me, you won’t be able to put it down until you find out if Walter’s okay, in just the same way that you can’t help slowing to view that accident.

I have compared THE HANGING WOODS to two enduring classics. I found myself researching the Tallapoosa River that separated Walter and his friends from Niggertown. I asked a social studies teacher what he knew of the Tallapoosa and the history of the time period. This novel completely got under my skin and instilled a desire in me to find out more.

How could I not also give it a gold star? I look forward to reading what Mr. Sanders has to offer next.

This review was originally posted at www.teensreadtoo.com.
#1 - November 17, 2008, 05:08 PM

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