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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Franklin)

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Tom Franklin, 2010
HarperCollins
274 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060594664


Summary
In the late 1970s, Larry Ott and Silas "32" Jones were boyhood pals, Larry the child of white, lower middle-class parents and Silas the son of a poor, single black mother. Their worlds were as different as night and day, yet, for a few months, the boys stepped outside of their circumstance and shared a special bond.

But then tragedy struck: on a date, Larry took a girl to a drive-in movie, and she was never heard from again. She was never found and there was no confession, but all eyes rested on Larry. The incident shook the county—and perhaps Silas most of all. He and Larry's friendship was broken, and then Silas left.

Over twenty years have passed. Larry, a mechanic, lives a solitary existence, never able to rise above the whispers of suspicion. Silas has returned to town as a constable. He and Larry have no reason to cross paths until another girl disappears and Larry is blamed, again. And now, two men who once called each other friend are forced to confront the past they've buried and ignored for decades.

Tom Franklin's extraordinary talent has been hailed by the leading lights of contemporary literature—Phillip Roth, Richard Ford, Lee Smith, and Dennis Lehane. Reviewers have called his fiction "ingenious" (USA Today) and "compulsively readable" (Memphis Commercial Appeal). His narrative power and flair for characterization have been compared to the likes of Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor, Elmore Leonard, and Cormac McCarthy. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1963
Where—Dickinson, Alabama, USA
Education—B.A., University of South Alabama; M.F.A.
   University of Arkansas
Awards—Edgar Award; Guggeheim Fellowship; Writers at
   Work Literary Nonfiction Contest
Currently—lives in Oxford, Mississippi


Thomas G. Franklin was born in the small southern town of Dickinson, Alabama, in 1963. In 1981 he moved with his family to Mobile, Alabama, where he later attended the University of South Alabama in Mobile, earning his BA.

Working nights to put himself through school, Franklin took a variety a of jobs—as a heavy equipment operator at a sand-blasting grit factory, a construction inspector in a chemical plant, a clerk at a hospital morgue, and worker at hazardous waste clean-up sites. He earned his MFA at the University of Arkansas in 1998.

In 1999 Franklin returned to the University of South Alabama to teach; in the fall of that year, he was appointed the Phillip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He then moved to Knox College, where he held the position of visiting Writer-in-Residence.

In 2000, Franklin became the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at University of Mississippi in Oxford, instructing both undergraduate and graduate students.

In 1999 Franklin published Poachers, a collection of short stories set in Alabama. The title story won him the Edgar Allan Poe Award as Best Mystery Story. His first novel, Hell at the Breech, was published in 2003. Based in Clark County, Alabama (Franklin's childhood home), it focuses on a local feud in 1899, which Franklin heard about growing up. Smonk, Franklin's second novel (in 2006), recounts a trial of a rapist/murderer in 1911 who terrorized the small town of Old Texas, Alabama. In 2010 Franklin published Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter—about the disappearance of two girls and the estrangement of boyhood friends, one black, one white.

Franklin's short stories and essays have been published in numerous magazines including the Chattahoochee Review, Brightleaf, Nebraska Review, Texas Review, Quarterly West, and Smoke magazine. His writings have also been included in anthologies, such as New Stories from the South; The Year's Best, 1999; Best American Mystery Stories, 1999 and 2000; and Best Mystery Stories of the Century.

In addition to the Edgar award, Franklin has been honored several times for his literary achievements. In 1998 he won the Writers at Work Literary Nonfiction Contest. He received the Arkansas Arts Council grant for the short story in August of 1998. He was also presented with a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence for the 2001- 2002 academic year.

Franklin and his wife Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet and associate professor at the University of Mississippi, have a daughter and son. (Adapted from Missisppi Writers & Musicians.) 



Book Reviews
As he submerges us in the sweat of the South, Franklin's people...come alive, some of them with a vengeance. In a lesser writer's hands, the relationship between Larry and 32 —the heart of the novel—could have been black and white. Pardon the pun. But Franklin plays the literary equivalent of the blues, digging beneath the surface to reveal tangled emotion and intricate motivation.
Steve Bennett - San Antonio Express


Keeping the story's tension pulled tight, ...the writer's incredible talent emerges as he delves into the issue of race through exploring events that have formed each man. Descriptions of the town's other characters, including the families of the two missing girls, add to the flavor of the rural locale and help guide the plot.
Mary Popham - Louisville Courier-  Journal


Franklin's third novel (after Smonk) is a meandering tale of an unlikely friendship marred by crime and racial strain in smalltown Mississippi. Silas Jones and Larry Ott have known each other since their late 1970s childhood when Silas lived with his mother in a cabin on land owned by Larry's father. At school they could barely acknowledge one another, Silas being black and Larry white, but they secretly formed a bond hunting, fishing, and just being boys in the woods. When a girl goes missing after going on a date with Larry, he is permanently marked as dangerous despite the lack of evidence linking him to her disappearance, and the two boys go their separate ways. Twenty-five years later, Silas is the local constable, and when another girl disappears, Larry, an auto mechanic with few customers and fewer friends, is once again a person of interest. The Southern atmosphere is rich, but while this novel has the makings of an engaging crime drama, the languid shifting from present to past, the tedious tangential yarns, and the heavy-handed reveal at the end generate far more fizz than pop.
Publishers Weekly


(Starred review.) A ripping good mystery, this novel also has depth and a subtle literary side, as the local area comes to life through the writer’s cinematic descriptive phrases and a large and colorful cast of supporting characters. Highly recommended.
Library Journal


(Starred review.) Skin color didn’t matter to boyhood companions Silas Jones and Larry Ott...until the night a pretty local girl went on a date with Larry to the drive-in movies and was never heard from again.... [M]ore than 20 years later...the disappearance of another girl brings the two former friends back together, forcing them to come to terms with buried secrets and dark truths.... Luminous prose and a cast of compelling characters in this moody, masterful entry. —Allison Block
Booklist



Discussion Questions
1. The epigraph reveals the origins of the novel's title. Why do you think Tom Franklin chose to use "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter"? What significance does it hold for the story?

2. Describe the boys Larry and Silas were, and the men they became. What drew Larry and Silas together as children? What separated them? How did you feel about both characters?

3. What elements of Larry's life set him apart from others? Could he have done anything to change people's opinion of him? Would you call Larry a "loser'? What about Silas?

4. When Larry is shot at the beginning of the novel, he is sympathetic to his attacker. "Larry felt forgiveness for him because all monsters were misunderstood." Does Larry consider himself to be a monster? Why? Why isn't he bitter? Could you be as charitable if you were in his place? Why does he say all monsters are misunderstood? Do you think he feels the same way at the end of the novel?

5. During the attack, the shooter is wearing an old monster mask that Larry recognized. What did that mask symbolize for both the victim and his attacker?

6. Tom Franklin goes back and forth between past and present to tell his story. How are Larry and Silas prisoners of their childhoods? How can we break the past's hold on us?

7. Describe Larry's relationship with his father, Carl. How might things have been different if Larry knew the truth about his family sooner? Why did Carl force Larry and Silas to fight as boys? What impact did that fight have on their friendship? Do you think the outcome was Carl's intent? How did Silas feel about Carl?

8. Talk about both boys' relationships to their mothers. How did their mothers shape them? Were they good sons? What kind of people were their mothers? Why does Silas go to see Larry's mother in the nursing home?

9. When Silas visits Mrs. Ott, he's reminded of the past when he first arrived in the town with his mother, both of them coatless in the cold. "Sometimes he thought how Larry's mother had given them coats but not a ride in her car. How what seemed liked kindness could be the opposite." How was this behavior cruel? Can you think of other examples from the book where kindness and cruelty were combined?

10. Was Larry treated fairly by the community or the law? We're supposed to be a nation of laws in which people are innocent until proven guilty.

11. Why did Silas remain silent when he could have helped Larry when they were teenagers? Why does he finally come forward with the truth? How might both their lives have been different if the truth were known?

12. When he was a little boy, Larry's mother used to pray for God to send him a special friend, "one just for him." Were her prayers answered?

13. After Silas, Larry considered Wallace Stringfellow to be his friend. What was the bond between Larry and Wallace? What attracted one to the other? Were they really friends? What is a friend?

14. As an adult, Larry also prayed to God. "Please forgive my sins, and send me some business. Give Momma a good day tomorrow or take her if it's time. And help Wallace, God. Please." What were Larry's sins? Why did he pray for Wallace? What did Larry see in Wallace?

15. When Larry is in the hospital after the shooting, Silas goes to visit. "He wondered how broken Larry was by the events of his life, how damaged." How would you answer Silas?

16. Was Larry broken? Was he damaged? What kept him from becoming the monster everyone believed he was? Silas, too, wonders about himself. "What's missing out of you Silas?" Does he discover his missing self? How? Is Silas a better man for the knowledge? How does that insight affect Larry's life?

17. Larry felt he was to blame for Wallace's tragic choices. Do you think he was responsible at all? What about Silas? How much responsibility do we carry for others? For family? Friends? Strangers? How much responsibility does the community bear for the Wallace's actions?

18. How does Larry react when Silas tells him the truth about their childhood? Can true friends overcome betrayal? How? Do you think they will be part of each other's lives going forward?

19. Silas left Southern Mississippi then returned. Larry never left. Why did they make the decisions they did? What was it about their small town that drew and kept them there? How does place shape the novel? Could this have happened in any small town?

20. How is racism a part of the story? Use Larry and Silas's experiences to support you response.

21. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is also a coming of age story. How did the characters come into themselves as the story progressed? What possibilities might the future hold for Larry and Silas?

22. At the novel's end, Tom Franklin writes, "the land had a way of covering the wrongs of people." What does he mean by this?

23. What did you take away from reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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