A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.
1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.
The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.
Ladies and gentlemen, Cat Winters has done it yet again. I’m running out of praise for this author. Her combination of supernatural, history and feminism is unparalleled – and how great is it to find an author who just delivers each time?
The Steep and Thorny Way does have Hamlet-like elements to it, but diverges on one of the more pivotal plot twists and takes on a life of its own. It also strikes me as a darker book than her other work, but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment.
There’s a powerful movement to cleanse this country of the wrong sorts of people.
The novel is set in the state of Oregon during the 1920s, a time of racism and the KKK, rampant homophobia, and the Prohibition with its associated bootlegging activities. Of course, the first two elements were more prevalent in small towns, such as the one our MC Hanalee inhabits, than the bigger cities, which tended to be more liberal.
Hanalee, as a mixed race child of a black father and a white mother, faces a huge amount of ugly prejudice from many of the people in her town. After her father’s death, supposedly caused by a drunk driver, the son of the town reverend, she embarks on a quest to find out the truth of what happened that night, spurred on by the appearance of his ghost around town.
I won’t go into the rest of the story – the journey of discovery is for you, dear readers, to experience – but the book is certainly an exploration of unusual allies, contesting loyalties, enduring friendships, and the lines we draw that divide us. I was particularly charmed by the character of Joe, the alleged guilty party in the death of Hanalee’s father. The platonic relationship that develops between our MC and Joe was really wonderful to behold – even though they got off to a rather rocky start.
The author also briefly delves into the eugenics movement, where scientists and politicians sought to prevent the “wrong sorts” of people from being able to reproduce – such as people of colour and homosexuals, for example. It’s a horrifying yet morbidly fascinating part of American history that I don’t think is too well known.
There is also a fair amount of irony in the fact that we’re really seeing history repeat itself, in a way – almost 100 years later, and there’s still fear of letting the wrong kinds of people into our towns and cities.
I did find the ghost aspect just a little too convenient, providing the answers needed at the right time, but that does follow on in the tradition of Hamlet, of course, and contributed to the creepy aura.
Overall though, the novel is a celebration of overcoming the ugliness of human nature, of hope and survival, of fighting back, and of grief, for both the people we lose through death, and those we lose via other forms of separation. The prose flows well, which led to me speeding through the book, and despite the unpleasant nature of the history, was an utterly enjoyable read. While the author’s books are not action packed, they have a quiet brilliance to them that really resonates with me.
ARC received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.