Nothing says “summer reading” like a good thriller, so I was more than happy to dig into That Bright Land, the newest novel from Terry Roberts, winner of the James Still Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers and guest writer at this year’s SouthWord on November 3 and 4. Inspired by the adventures of Roberts’s own ancestor, That Bright Land takes place during the tumultuous years after the American Civil War. It follows Union veteran and spy Jacob Ballard, who journeys to from Washington, D.C. to the rural mountains of North Carolina in order to catch a serial killer who is murdering Jake’s fellow veterans. Although he is initially contemptuous of the rough mountain people and their way of life, Jake eventually falls in love with North Carolina’s stunning landscape and rich culture.
Roberts’s prose is undeniably beautiful and frequently poetic in its description of mountain landscapes and the colorful characters who inhabit them. He takes long detours from the serial killer plot in order to explore Appalachian culture, giving his fictional world depth, providing the reader with clues and red herrings until the killer’s identity is ultimately revealed. While this novel is billed as a "thriller", Roberts’s true achievement in That Bright Land is making the past come alive. He describes the daily lives of the people of rural North Carolina in painstaking detail, and characterizes Jake’s psychological struggles in a way that mirrors contemporary veterans’ struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Roberts’s characters will no doubt feel familiar to readers in the twenty-first century, even though they exist over one hundred and fifty years apart from one another, and they will likely look upon the Reconstruction era with fresh eyes, agreeing with Roberts that “these men, along with the women and children who missed and mourned them, were fully as complex as we are ourselves. They were not sick figures; they were fully human.”
Terry Roberts is the author of the novels A Short Time to Stay Here and That Bright Land. A Short Time to Stay Here received the Willie Morris award for Southern fiction. A lifelong resident of North Carolina, he now lives in Asheville. He will participate as a guest writer at Southern Lit Alliance's SouthWord on November 3 and 4. Information available at www.southernlitalliance.org.