I like my fictional families dark, secretive and complicated, and this one did not let me down.
Lori Roy’s “Let Me Die In His Footsteps” is the sort of book I find it hard to walk past and not read. I saw the glossy new and very purple cover at the library, picked it up, and decided I was going to read it. It promised history, coming-of-age, complicated family relationships, secrets and scandals and, as I discovered, it definitely delivers.
The novel is made up of two intertwined stories. In 1952, we have the story of Annie told in third person. She is just coming of age and, as traditional in her small community, is off to try and see the face of the man she will marry in whatever well best suits her. She and all the children of the town are haunted by the story of the evil Juna Crowley, responsible for getting a man hung and the long-term antagonism that has resulted between the Baines and Hollerans/Crowleys. For Annie, it’s all a bit more personal, though, for Juna is her aunt and there are plenty of seeds of truth in the whole legend.
The other very weighty half of the story and told in the first person, is that of Sarah, Annie’s mother. Back in 1936, who is living through the events of That Day and the immediate aftermath. She has her own complicated issues already at hand and her uncertainty over what has really happened, a mix of what she might want to be true and what actually is, make for a very compelling story.
These characters are pleasingly complex and no one is good or evil, purely innocent or purely guilty. There are leanings one way or another, true, and the younger generation definitely don’t have as many secrets weighing them as their elders do, but nothing is entirely simple.
It’s hard to describe this book further without giving too many of its twists away. It was about families, though, the complicated relationships therein and their imperfectly covered secrets. All of these are things I love in a book. It was also about love and the various forms it takes – though be warned, this is not really a romance. More than that, though, it’s about rumour and superstition, and the power that belief in such gives, no matter how faint that belief might be.
I find myself repeatedly coming back to the title. The women in this book are so defined, like it or not, by the men with whom they are connected. Whose footsteps, exactly, is it a reference to? The unexpected, long-felt consequences of what happened that day at the river? A religious thing? I’m not entirely sure, but I do feel like the novel is concerned with the rigidity of expectations, the removal of choice, and the oversimplified ways of seeing and using others. The women are at the center of the novel and so we see their particular experience of this and the consequences of such, but while the men seem to enjoy more freedom, they are far from entirely spared this.
It’s not a flawless book. The sheer volume of detail is both a strrong and a weak point, for it all gets a bit much sometimes and you just want to get back to the main focus of the story. Like the characters, you too may be heartily sick of lavender by the end. The fact that every place gets described in depth made it hard for me, at least, to remember the key ones. More concerning, the beginning in particular is very detail-heavy and quite slow, and the number of lost bookmarks that I found in the first chapters lends testimony to how easily one can give up on the book in its dense early pages. Annie’s morbid discovery is supposed to be a big hook, but it’s hard to even care that much about that until you’ve read more.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this one and found myself still thinking about it well after I’d finished. It’s well worth wading through any less interesting descriptions for the chance to figure out the characters and unknot all the secrets, big and small. Like many books with this structure, the period of time closer to the present isn’t quite as compelling as the earlier period is, but it was more than interesting enough to keep going nonetheless. I’d recommend this one to anyone who likes their characters complicated and compelling stories about ugly family secrets.