In "Nightwoods," the latest from Charles Frazier, Luce had been a beautiful girl, but nothing had ever gone right for her.
As a young girl she was raped by her high school chemistry teacher and developed a fear and hatred of men. Her white-trash mother abused her and ran off and left her and her sister, Lily. Her final words to them were: "I never loved any of you damn children."
Luce responded by going even deeper into herself. Lily ran off, too, going after any man who showed interest. This resulted in two small children, twins named Frank and Delores, but no husband.
Then Lily took up with a psychopath named Bud, married him, and -- with the children watching -- is attacked and killed by her new husband.
Luce, meanwhile, has been hired as caretaker of an abandoned lakeside resort in western North Carolina. She has two friends; Stubblefield, the old man who owns the property, and Maddie, a hard-edged older woman who lives nearby.
Then Luce gets another surprise; her sister's twins are given to Luce. If she does not take them, they will be separated and sent to foster homes.
The children cannot speak and demonstrate a destructive streak that includes a fascination with fire. Luce is a little afraid of them, but they are all she has. Her father does not even admit that she is his child -- and she determines to raise the twins. She tries to teach them about nature -- plants, trees, the stars, animals -- and they respond by killing her chickens. Their obsession with fire results in the destruction of a house.
Then two things happen. Stubblefield dies, leaving the property to his grandson, and Bud -- who somehow was acquitted of his wife's murder, and is still determined to find her money -- sets out to find Luce. Stubblefield's grandson, whose fishing business in Florida is going nowhere, decides to come up and see what he has inherited. He is attracted to Luce, but she is having none of it.
The characters are in place for a tale that is right down Frazier's alley. As readers of "Cold Mountain" and "Thirteen Moons" know, he is a master at evoking the harsh beauty of the North Carolina mountain country. He also has a gift for creating people you come to care about.
Gradually, slowly, the suspense builds. The children are frightened and run away, riding Sally, Maddie's old horse. Luce and Stubblefield start looking for them, but Bud, carrying a sharp knife, is also tracking them. As they stumble through the snow-filled wilderness, the tension becomes almost more than you can stand.
Even as we fear what might happen, we are conscious of the author's skill at describing a world he knows so well. Here is the way the lost children see the dawn: "At dawn, cold mist, pale metal colors. Gray and yellow and blue. Then various degrees of early light as the sun burns through the fog. Each twig and fir needle in its own case of ice. ... The ground deep in wet snow, and evergreen boughs drooping under the weight. Light bouncing crazy, eye-burning brilliant. Weird and exciting." A hawk flies by, "wings cutting the air, a faint rattle of feathers." We watch a newly caught rainbow trout's "brilliant agonizing in the sunlight."
The one disappointing part of the book is the ending. Frazier builds the tension to a point where you can hardly bear to find out what happens next. And then, suddenly, it's all over. The confrontation you had been dreading is described in a few paragraphs. It's almost as if his deadline had arrived and he had to turn in his manuscript without quite finishing.
But don't let this stop you from reading what is almost a great story. Even when he falls short, Frazier is one of the very best Southern novelists.