The Steep & Thorny Way by Cat Winters (Proof) - Something's rotten in the state of Oregon.
Hanalee Denney's hometown is not a welcoming place in the 1920s. Hanalee is the daughter of a white woman and an African American man, so she has no rights under the law. If that weren't enough, the Ku Klux Klan is a powerful force in the area, breeding fear and hatred, even among friends. Her father, Hank Denney, died a year and a half ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now the killer is out of jail and back in town... but he claims that Hank wasn't killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him - who just happens to be Hanalee's new stepfather. The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she desperately needs is to ask her father - a "haint" who wanders the roads at night.
Inspired by Hamlet and infused with the real history and feel of Prohibition-era Oregon, The Steep and Thorny Way is a gripping and thoughtful story of intolerance, forgiveness, and finding one's own path. From the blurb.
After mostly enjoying As I Descended by Robin Talley, I was in the mood for another Shakespeare retelling, and so picked up The Steep & Thorny Way by Cat Winters. A gender-bent retelling of Hamlet set in 1920s prohibition-era Oregon, where Hanalee's African American father was murdered for his skin colour, I knew this was going to be an interesting though scary story - I just didn't expect it to be as brilliant as it was.
When Joe, the drink-driving teenager who knocked down Hanalee's father, Hank, and killed him, is released from prison early on good behaviour, Hanalee is intent on revenge. What she doesn't expect is for Joe to forcefully plead his innocence, and lay the blame at someone else's feet; Dr Koning, her new stepfather. According to Joe, apart from a broken leg and a sore arm, her father was fine after he hit him, talking and even joking. Joe helped him to his house and got the doctor. Hank was fine when the doctor closed the door, but when he opened it again, he was dead - as if he'd been poisoned. Joe was sent down for it, and wasn't allowed to say anything in his defence. He believes Dr Koning is part of the Ku Klux Klan, and murdered Hank because of his skin colour. Hanalee no longer knows what to think, but she's never felt ok about her stepfather being in her father's home, in his bed with his wife, so soon after his death, and something is not quite right. She knows the only way to get answers is to ask the one person who knows - her father, whose ghost has been seen haunting the cross roads where he was hit.
This story is incredible! There are so many elements interwoven to make the whole; bootleggers and their moonshine, the KKK and racial intolerance, and then also the Hamlet retelling. The 1920s is a hard time to live in; The Great War took many wives husbands, and farms are no longer bringing in the money they had been during the war. Families are struggling, and they are having to resort to illegal means to make money; moonshine and bootlegging. Though anti-Catholic, the KKK seem an almost harmless force who are just raising money to to fill the potholes in the highway. And yet it's a time when interracial marriage is not acknowledged under Oregon law, where racial intolerance simmers under the surface, and Hanalee is treated differently for being the daughter of a white woman and an African American man. She's always been treated differently because of the colour of her skin, disliked and judged, and knows there are rights she is not given because of this, but she's not felt like she was in danger. But after she starts digging into the truth behind her father's death, things change rapidly when she realises she could be living in the same house as her father's murderer, a possible member of the KKK, who killed him because of his skin colour - a skin colour she shares.
Then you have the Hamlet elements. It's been quite a while since I studied Hamlet, but I remembered the basics, and that's pretty much all you need to know for this story, because it twists and turns, and you're never really sure what the outcome is going to be. You're constantly left guessing, sitting on the edge of your seat as Hanalee tries to work out exactly what happened to her father - a dangerous task anyway, when you're trying to find a possible murderer, but made even more dangerous as her digging draws attention to herself in a town of bigots. You're never really sure where the story is going to go, even if you know the story of Hamlet; as new evidence and new clues come to light, you come up with theory after theory, never quite sure which will be the one that's right.
Hanalee was a fantastic character; despite how she's treated by some, she's strong and determined to find the truth. She's wary of Joe, but something about what she's been told just doesn't ring true, and so she cautiously trusts him as they work together to uncover the truth. She puts herself in potential danger more times than I can count, but she keeps going, needing to know what truly happened to her dad, wanting to help his ghost rest. Joe is also a pretty great character, and a bit of a surprise. Joe is gay, and has been hiding out in a shed on Hanalee's friend's property because his Reverend father won't have him back, as he's a sexual deviant. When the truth of his sexuality comes out, people warn Hanalee to stay away from him if they ever see him, though never really explaining to her why. Through Joe, we see it's not just racial prejudice that's rife in Oregon, but also homophobia. Joe tells Hanalee of the things he learnt in prison, about Eugenics; how some prisoners people like him, people like Hanalee, were being castrated and sterilised, to keep them from "breeding" more people like them. Seriously, the beliefs and opinions of these people are absolutely disgusting and so terrifying.
But the terror continues as the story reaches it's climax. I read in horror, shocked and appalled as the truth was discovered, and what discovering the truth meant. This is not an easy book, and it's not one that will shy away from the actions of the past. This book will make you angry, sick to your stomach, and, given our current political climate, scared. And if you're a white, straight, cis person with any human decency, it will make you feel ashamed.
The Steep & Thorny Way is a wonderful book! It's captivating and gripping, it's eye-opening and shocking, and a fantastic retelling. A truly amazing story.
Thank you to Amulet Books for the proof.
Published: 8th March 2016
Publisher: Amulet Books
Cat Winters' Website