On the one hand, The Hanging Woods, the debut novel from Scott Loring Sanders, seems unmistakably to be in the “young-adult” genre. It is about early teen boys, and its language and situations are clearly geared for young people. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a darker story, or a protagonist as flawed as young Walter Sithol. And that leads me to wonder what young readers think of this boy, which also leads me to doubt my initial certainty that this book is solely for teenagers. While I believe they can handle it and learn from it, I also think that the adult reader will appreciate the complexities that emerge in the three central characters and enjoy the awful story that unfolds.
Walter is a typical boy in a small Alabama town in the mid-70s. His father is tough on him and his mother is over-protective. He hangs out with Jimmy and Raymond, known as Mothball, and they swim and fish and hang out together and occasionally get on each others’ nerves. Walter carries a secret, though, and it may mildly annoy the reader that he refers to having seen his mother’s diary without disclosing to the reader what he has read there. In any case, for various reasons tension builds between Walter and the other boys. Sanders renders these three boys with care, so that they are utterly distinct: Jimmy, the ringleader and troublemaker; Mothball, the chubby one, afraid of everything; and Walter, the smart one, the one who seems to have a firmer sense of right and wrong.
Then there is “the Troll,” a Vietnam veteran who lives under a bridge and becomes both a legend and a mystery to the boys, a town oddity for them to taunt and an easy scapegoat when things go wrong. The more the Troll is revealed in this story, the more the whole book seems to be following the model of To Kill a Mockingbird. The three kids in some ways even resemble Scout, Jem, and Dill; the Troll seems very much like Boo Radley; and eventually there is even a trial scene that echoes the one in the Harper Lee classic. There’s nothing wrong with imitating a masterpiece, but what’s ingenious here is that just at the point where the reader is convinced that Mockingbird is the template, Sanders has young Walter read that novel and learn from it. And it is from that point on that The Hanging Woods diverges and becomes its own terrifying story.
It is, I think, risky to place a boy such as Walter at the center of a novel, particularly one aimed at young people. And yet, the author trusts the reader of any age to see Walter’s flaws, and to keep reading despite them. It’s a gamble that pays off.
This is a very good read. Highly recommended.