Kensington Books. Trade paperback $15.95.
It’s 1960 in Wilke’s County, North Carolina and sixteen-year-old Jessie Sasser has a problem. In fact, she has several problems. One is an awkward and demeaning relationship with her father. He seems remote and silently critical. Jessie has asked him over and over to explain the death of her mother, which occurred when Jessie was four years old. However, she never gets a meaningful response. Her questioning is basically ignored. Her father resents her questioning, and Jessie interprets this to be, in part, the result of his complicity in her death.
The relationship is further complicated by Jessie’s rebellion against the family business of making and selling moonshine – illegal alcoholic beverages. This business supports her family, and many other families, in this place and time. It supports Jessie’s uncle, aunt, and cousin. This lazy trio does little assist Jessie’s father. They thrive on complaining.
Her younger brother, Merritt, idolizes their father and the moonshiner culture he proudly represents. Thus, Merritt cannot relate to his sister in any positive way.
In her high school, Jessie is almost totally without friends. She connects this condition of being left out or made fun of with the disgrace of the family’s low social status. Her one friend betrays her in various ways. Jessie also sees her isolation as being a consequence of her appearance. She perceives herself as obese, and to fight this vision of herself she has developed poor eating habits. She alternately binges, starves, and purges. The author’s fine, sympathetic delineation of the teenager’s severe eating disorder, along with its causes and consequences, is one of the novelist’s most powerful achievements.
Ms. Everhart provides hints that Jessie misperceives how others see her; however, her lack of self-esteem keeps reinforcing her self-image. Only her elderly neighbor, a woman of shrewd insight and compassion, takes the time to offer Jessie some tools and insights that slowly ameliorate her miserable condition. Mrs. Brewer, who is also a school nurse, is a remarkable character, drawn to perfection by the author.
At first, Jessie is defined as a rebel, fighting against the family’s moonshiner identity and the risks of such an enterprise – risks including the violence of a rival moonshining family and the county agents assigned to apprehend and jail moonshiners as criminals.
However, perhaps to win her father’s favor, she becomes cooperative and takes on a share of the work. Neither her father nor her brother is willing to trust her. Because Jessie is the narrator, we know that her change of heart is serious, but after a while she begins to have qualms about her shift in direction. When her father is arrested and sentenced to jail, she must fight the assumption of those who believe that she turned him in.
As the novel progresses, Jessie seems to be accepting the fact that she was born to the life of running moonshine stills and conveying the product to their customers. She’s good at it. She proves herself worthy. When her father is released, he finally offers Jessie some of the positive recognition that he had held back for so long. He also opens up, to a positive outcome, the truth about his wife’s participation in the business and the details about her death twelve years back.
Part of what makes Jessie a compelling character is that her flaws are recognizable. They define her without pushing the reader away. She slowly recognizes who she really is and what she can attain. This is not a story of unexpected epiphanies, but of gradual growth to an enhanced, effective self-awareness. Jessie has miles to go, but she is on the right track. She has developed inner resources that are likely to serve her well.
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in running an illegal distillery, this book can serve as a training manual
Originally published in Southern Literary Review as the January Review of the Month.
Click here: Moonshiner’s Daughter