On the opening page of this amazing novel, seven black hearses roll down the highway toward the small Kentucky town of Cementville. “Each black hearse with a small flag fluttering from its antenna, each containing a flag-draped coffin.” The story is set during the Viet Nam war in a small community that suffers the loss of seven of its finest young men, killed in a single battle. This really happened in the author’s hometown, and in creating a fictionalized version of the story, Paulette Livers skillfully peels back layers of grief as she tunnels into the hearts and minds of the locals, many of whom struggle to hold onto the old ways even as the world is changing all around them.
Cementville is the kind of place where folks know one another’s business, where family trees are tangled at the roots and where destiny is often ordained at birth. Every soul in town has been directly impacted by or knows someone touched by the deaths of the young soldiers. Just as they are all familiar with the soldier-hero who came back after spending years as a prisoner of war, the one who was sent home in shrouded disgrace and the one who fled the country, presumably to escape the draft.
What to make of these young men – all affected by war? What to make of their mothers and fathers and teenage sisters and crazy uncles who harbor their own secrets, dreams and disappointments? It is rare to find an entire population rendered with the insight, clarity and tenderness that Livers brings to the people of Cementville in her richly intertwined narrative. Like a sculptor working in stone, she carves life-like characters from words and then delivers them a double whammy: first the sorrow that comes from almost incomprehensible loss and then fear that arises when murder invades their peaceful valley.