“You can bury a secret in a shallow grave,” muses 18-year-old Nyla in We Were Kings, the latest YA novel from Court Stevens. “A deep grave might make you crazy, but a shallow grave is a survival tool. Dig a few inches, toss in the pain, and shovel the dirt over the top. Go on living and deal with the weeds as they emerge.”
As the story opens, Nyla is confronted with some startling weeds of her own to deal with. Her mother, Elizabeth, is obsessed with the fate of her best friend, Frankie, who has been behind bars for 20 years for the murder of Cora King, the 18-year-old daughter of a senator. Elizabeth is convinced that Frankie is innocent and has visited her weekly throughout her incarceration.
Under the recently passed “Accelerated Death Penalty Act,” designed to save money for the taxpayers of Kentucky, death row inmates have only 30 days to appeal their sentences and another 30 days to live if their appeal is denied. With no father or siblings, Nyla thinks of her mother as her best friend and closest confidante, but when Frankie’s appeal is denied, Elizabeth breaks down, and in the confusion Nyla learns that her mother is actually Cora’s sister and a member of a powerful family that is both extremely wealthy and extremely dysfunctional. After Cora’s death, Nyla learns Elizabeth changed her last name, moved away, and never looked back.
The realization that her mother has been lying to her all her life hits Nyla hard: “Like she’d swallowed a snake that slithered and stretched until its fangs sank deep in her heart and its rattling tail banged inside her brain. You want to put it behind you, but you can’t because it’s inside you.” On a quest for the truth, she ends up in Elizabeth’s small hometown of Nockabout Island, Kentucky, known for “murderers, miners, and addicts.” Nyla joins a “murder tour” led by Sam, a “strong-jawed, sun-kissed, dog-loving” local boy about her age, with whom she feels an immediate connection. Despite the area’s reputation and her current trauma, she is stunned by its scenic beauty as they glide along in Sam’s boat: “I am riding through a collage of nature: aquamarine water, Carolina Blue sky, gray clouds that look like dirty pillow stuffing. The greens — juniper, fern, chartreuse — steal empty pieces of the horizon. These trees, some full, some dead, create a kaleidoscope on the water. Everywhere I’ve previously laid eyes feels like a kindergarten sketch next to a Picasso.”
The beautiful surroundings hide some disturbing revelations. On the tour Nyla learns more about Cora’s murder and Frankie’s conviction, and it all begins to feel personal. As Sam brings them to Frankie’s Camaro, where the authorities found the “smoking gun” of DNA evidence — all the rest having been circumstantial — Nyla is deeply affected by what she sees inside the trunk. “Twenty years of your life disappear over a nick from a fishhook or a deep paper cut,” she thinks. “One drop of blood. That’s what she’ll be executed for.”
Gradually, with Sam’s help, Nyla begins her own investigation of Cora’s murder — getting to know her family members and friends, visiting the penitentiary to meet Frankie for the first time, and even starting a podcast called Death Daze to stir up public interest about the case. When the show goes viral, Nyla’s home is attacked and she knows they are on the right track. As Nyla and Sam work together to unsnarl the strands of this twisty puzzle despite the danger, they realize that any one of their many suspects could be guilty — even their own parents. Stevens ramps up the suspense with one surprising revelation after another as the two teens race against time, sifting through secrets and lies to put wrongs right and bring the true killer to justice.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.