Book Review: The May Queen Murders, Sarah Jude (2016)

May 2nd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Haunting Story of Love, Loss – and Severed Lips

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

We’ve always been afraid he’d be drawn back to take our girls. He’d take her into the woods and make her his bride. We even wondered if we should give him one, just to make him go away for good. But of course, we couldn’t. That’d be murder.

For her entire life – and those of her ancestors, going back generations – Ivy Templeton has called Rowan’s Glen her home. An isolated community in the Ozarks, the Glen is the town that time forgot. Or rather, its residents chose to ignore time’s passage:

Most Rowan’s Glen residents long ago decided that if we couldn’t raise, craft, or repurpose it, then we wouldn’t use it. Over time, the buildings converted from no electricity to solar energy. Our clothing was handmade, came secondhand from kin or the town thrift store if splurging. Glen kind looked different from the rollers in the trailer park and the townies. We were hillfolk, with our boys in trousers and suspenders and girls clad in long skirts. Once a Missouri Ozarks outpost for Scottish travelers searching for permanency, Rowan’s Glen kept life simple and the outside world at bay.

Nevertheless, Ivy and her kin are not completely removed from the surrounding world: Rowan’s Glen residents sell their wares at the farmer’s market; her father, Timothy, runs a veterinary practice that’s open to all; and the kids of the Glen attend public school (ever since the community’s own classes, held in the church basement, were declared inadequate by the state). Occasionally, outsiders have reason to come to the Glen. Such was the case with the May Queen Murders, some twenty-five years ago.

The story goes that local “crazy” Birch Markle escaped from his basement prison on the night of the May Queen celebrations. After a lifetime spent killing animals, his violence escalated to humans. Birch killed the May Queen herself, Terra MacAvoy; he was found standing over her hideously mutilated body several days after she went missing. But before the townspeople or county police could catch him, Birch fled into the woods – which he continues to haunt to this very day. A generation later, children and adults alike are still cautioned not to go out alone at night – and not to venture into the forest at all.

It was a good place, even with the screams that sometimes came from the forest, the screams that had been there my whole life and longer.

Thought cursed, the May Queen festivities were suspended indefinitely. But faced with a drought – as well as a new rash of missing animals – the Rowan’s Glen council votes to begin them anew, in the hopes of moving forward. Since one of Ivy’s parents was born outside the Glen (her mother Luz is from Mexico), she is ineligible from being crowned Queen. Her cousin Heather, however – outgoing, full of laughter and light, with a crown of fiery red hair to match – seems a shoo-in.

As if that’s not reason enough to fear for her best friend, Heather has been acting reckless and secretive, sneaking out at night to meet her lover. Ivy feels them drifting apart, teetering on the precipice of a dangerous and life-changing secret – allegiances further divided by Ivy’s blooming romance with the Sheriff’s son, Rook Meriweather, another dear childhood friend.

We’d grabbed hands while climbing trees many times growing up, but touching him now was like a dandelion scattering inside me, seeds full of possibility.

The May Queen Murders is dark and disturbing, creepy and atmospheric. Jude’s writing is both lovely and unsettling; she juxtaposes beauty and horror, love and loss, life and death with skill and grace. Compulsively readable and oh-so-haunting, The May Queen Murders isn’t a story I’ll soon forget.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that it gave me nightmares! (Though, to be fair, my “nightmares” are entertaining like horror movies; the dreams that really freak me out are more mundane and usually involve losing teeth or finding myself back at my college grocery store job. Anyway, this melded with the plot of Sleeping Giants to make a scary-weird mini-movie.)

Many aspects of the story brought to mind Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s in Me: the old-timey characters who seem like they stepped out of an Amish village, or maybe a Colonial Williamsburg reenactment (though here, it’s more House on the Prairie meets Haight-Ashbury); the human villain who’s been elevated to nearly mythical status; and the mutilated teens. So much mutilation! (Some of it pretty depressing in its banality, actually. The over-the-top, bloody-gory, severed body parts are my favorite.)

The scenes between Ivy and Rook are surprisingly sexy and touching; I especially appreciate how respectful he is of her wishes, and bonus points for the nod to safe sex. Rowan’s Glen might make their own clothes and use kerosene lamps, but that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in mass-produced condoms!

The relationships between Ivy and her peers – Heather, Violet, and Dahlia – make for compelling drama; the story’s female friendships are depicted with nuance and compassion. In particular my heart broke as I watched Ivy and Heather grow apart, separated by secrets and lies.

There’s also a wonderful breadth of diversity to be found here – some of which I won’t mention because spoilers! As I already said, Ivy is Latina on her mother’s side; Timothy and Luz met in Mexico, when he visited her village as a missionary to build houses. They married and Luz moved back to Rowan’s Glen, Missouri with him, leaving her family behind. (They were later killed in a landslide.) She often feels like an outsider in this close-knit community, but not necessarily because hers is the only brown face; her lack of local-born kin seems to function as a metaphor for her non-whiteness. (Though several passages do more explicitly point to racism.) There’s also a rather strict class system vis-à-vis the hillfolk, the rollers, and the townies, played out to exaggeration in the halls of Salem Plateau High School.

Mental illness is a significant theme as well, from boogeyman Birch Markle’s ongoing problems (which make him all too easy to blame for the weird goings-on in the Glen) to Aunt Rue’s postpartum depression and Mamie’s muteness in the wake of her husband’s death.

As much as I enjoyed the bulk of the book, the last 15% or so left me frustrated. Once the unmasking of the villain(s) begins, Scooby Doo-styley, the plot twists quickly pile up. There’s one gotcha! too many, and the reveals and take-backsies left my head spinning. Likewise, there’s an abundance of villains; it’s hard to know where to focus my rage. As painfully mundane as evil can be, I have trouble picturing so many baddies in one quaint little town. There are also a few stray threads that just don’t make sense.

Even so, I have no regrets: The May Queen Murders is a solid four stars, a harrowing horror ride -slash- psychological thriller with unexpected poetry and heart. For a debut novel, it’s pretty darn shiny. I can’t wait to see what Sarah Jude does next!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! The narrator, Ivy Templeton, is Latina (Mexican) on her mother’s side and Scottish on her father’s. Timothy and Luz met in Mexico, when he visited her village as a missionary to build houses. They married and Luz moved back to Rowan’s Glen, Missouri with him, leaving her family behind. (They were later killed in a landslide.) She often feels like an outsider in this close-knit community, but not necessarily because hers is the only brown face; her lack of local-born kin seems to function as a metaphor for her non-whiteness. (Though several passages do more explicitly point to racism.) Since one of her parents was born outside the Glen, Ivy is disqualified from being a May Queen, once the council votes to reinstate the festivities after a 25-year gap. Ivy is shy and sometimes stutters.

Ivy’s best friend and cousin Heather is sneaking out at night to meet her lover. After catching her at the Entwhistles’s trailer, Ivy assumes that Heather is having an affair with Milo – but we later learn that it was his older sister, Emmie (Mary Jane) that Heather was in love and planning to run away with. They hid the relationship because they feared they wouldn’t be accepted: both because of prejudice against the Markle bloodline, and prejudice against gay people.

Some boys at school cornered Dahlia Crenshaw in the chem lab and attacked her; the assault left her face scarred with chemical burns. Now she rarely leaves her corner of the Glen and, when she does, she covers her face with a scarf. Though the boys were punished, there was much victim-blaming; people said she brought on the attack.

In the wake of Heather’s murder, her mother Rue sinks into a deep depression. She gives birth to Sage weeks later, but suffers from postpartum depression, refusing to care for or even name the baby.

After Mamie’s husband died, she became mute. Now she spends most of her time alone, in the attic.

Rook survives a murder attempt, but he’s left with scars all over his body, suffers from nerve damage in one leg, and is missing an ear. When Ivy tends to his bandages, he doesn’t want her to look at the area where his ear was.

Birch Markle, who was blamed for the murder of Terra MacAvoy, suffered from mental illness; his mother committed suicide.

Milo and Emmie’s 24-year-old brother Mark is dying (of cancer?). They’re dealing drugs to help pay for his care. (Though, to be fair, pot and alcohol usage seem to be rather acceptable in this community, even for teenagers.)

In the Glen folk, rollers, and townies, we see a strictly structured class system, with the “cult” members at the bottom, followed by those who live in the nearby trailer park, and the “regular” town people at the top. Just as Ivy feels like an outcast at school (a “hillbilly”), Milo is acutely aware of his own social standing (“trailer park trash,” to paraphrase).

Animal-friendly elements: The May Queen Murders (I and II) were preceded by a rash of animal killings – dogs, cats, goats, horses – thus linking the abuse of animals to interpersonal violence. Rook’s horse Veil comes from an animal rescue!


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