Wiley Cash, author of A Land More Kind Than Home, This Dark Road to Mercy, and The Last Ballad, returns with his latest offering, the warm and immensely readable When Ghosts Come Home.
Set in 1984 in the small North Carolina coastal town of Oak Island, When Ghosts Come Home opens as an early-morning, low-flying airplane awakens 63-year-old Winston Barnes and his cancer-stricken wife, Marie. Although Winston, the town’s principled and kind sheriff, already has a peculiar feeling and tells his beloved Marie that he is going to the airport to investigate, a phone call from dispatch, which hints at a possible plane crash, quickly spurs him into action.
When Sheriff Barnes arrives, he indeed finds a crashed, oddly empty plane, but the plane’s condition isn’t the only mystery the sheriff has on his hands. Nearby, he uncovers the body of Rodney Bellamy, a Black man who is the son of a local high school history teacher and civil rights leader, killed by a gunshot. Deputies and others who soon arrive on the scene are quick to link the two as being the result of a drug deal gone bad, but Sheriff Barnes isn’t so sure. He believes something else might very well be afoot on Oak Island — something involving people few others would ever suspect.
While When Ghosts Come Home is very much a mystery novel — one that demands (and delivers) answers — readers should go into the book knowing that there is much more within these pages than a simple mystery to be solved. This is a book rich in character that also expertly weaves subplots dealing with politics, corruption, and racism.
Many of these subplots revolve around Sheriff Barnes as he tries to accept his fading status in a town that seems to want to leave him behind for a fresh, new face in the upcoming election. Barnes is a good, decent man — a man who, although he has a moment from his past that haunts him, actively tries to do the right and fair thing. If his opponent were like him, his fall might not be so hard; however, his opponent, Bradley Frye, is nothing like him. Frye is arrogant and racist. Sheriff Barnes remembers him as being “one of the local boys who’d load up in trucks to harass and beat up Black students protesting just up the road in Wilmington.”
To fully show the separation between the two men, Cash writes, “Winston was more accustomed to arresting men like Bradley Frye for drunk driving or picking up prostitutes than he was standing against them in an election.” Sheriff Barnes’ disappointment in seeing others support his unworthy challenger — and watching as he slowly begins to process how dishonorable and cruel so many of the people around him are — is heartbreaking.
While Sheriff Barnes’ story is the soul of When Ghosts Come Home, two other narratives are just as vital to the novel’s whole. The story of Colleen, the Barnes’ daughter who is trying to recover from an ill-fated pregnancy, proves how difficult it can be to escape the ghosts that haunt us. Jay, a teen member of the Bellamy family with his own troubling past, also offers a crucial, affecting perspective on how racism isn’t something that only exists in the adult world, as he observes how his close white friend, Cody, never goes inside Jay’s house, leaves their basketball games early to use his own bathroom, and even refuses a sip of water from Jay’s outdoor hose.
Cash writes in such accessible, smooth prose that it’s easy to get lost inside his work. But style is not the only reason his latest novel is so consuming. This is a timely novel that, while certainly dark, also asks us to believe in hope — in redemption. With When Ghosts Come Home, Cash delivers the kind of book so many of us crave.
Bradley Sides‘ debut collection of short stories, Those Fantastic Lives, is forthcoming from City of Light Publishing in October 2021. On most days, he can be found teaching creative writing and English in southern Tennessee.