It could have been just another story about two men who wanted the same woman.
A murder-suicide rarely rates more than a couple of minutes on the television evening news in the twenty-first century. We have become increasingly interconnected, and can hear about crime through multiple venues and viewpoints almost as it occurs. Not so, during the mid-1950’s in rural America – murders and suicides were unusual enough that they are still remembered and discussed decades later and the combination of the two can be the stuff of legend.
Harold G. Walker takes us back to such an event that took place in 1957 in the area known as the bootheel of Missouri. Those of us who grew up there sometimes call it Swampeast Missouri, not exactly a misnomer since much of the land was reclaimed from the swampy area most affected by the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes. The land is still unstable – we can remember it frequently shaking beneath our feet and rattling the dishes in the cupboard. We also experienced unpredictable, sometimes violent weather and knew the difference between a sleet, ice and hail storm. Most of our parents were fatalistic and either took to the cellar or the front porch to watch the approaching storm, depending upon their temperament.
We can detect the use of “setting as character” as we revisit this rural area of the state. The possibility of violent weather or earthquake; the distance between the homes of those who lived there, where travel could become even more treacherous because of flooding; the damage to crops that could leave farmers uncertain that their families would have the basic necessities from year to year; and the lay of the land around the Floodway Ditches, marvels of engineering at the time they were built and the source of possibility for a decent life for the farming community. But the lay of the land could be dangerous, too, and we can feel the danger as we meet two young men who grew up there.
The conditions of living in that place and time could be seen as a natural metaphor for the personalities and relationship between Hokey and Fats. Hokey was known to carry an aura of restlessness and mystery, dangerous and unpredictable, a bit like a spring storm borne from a blue-skied morning and exploding into a mass of churning clouds spitting hail and unleashing tornados by dusk. Fats, by contrast, was even-tempered and easy-going – comfortable to be around and sensible in his relationship with Hokey. He knew how far to go, just as the wise farmer knows when to hit the cellar.
Those of us who grew up in the bootheel would naturally be attracted to the story of Hokey and Fats and the affect their shattered friendship and deaths would have on the community. We would take satisfaction in recognizing the landmarks and people, even if we had been gone to other parts of the country for decades. We would appreciate Harold Walker’s skill in taking us there through the travelogue of time and place. He has been, after all, a licensed private investigator, and knows the importance of attention to detail in solving a crime and in writing. He also demonstrates a fine grasp of the devices of fiction in the telling of the story, which helps it enter the realm of literary nonfiction.
That the story ends in a unique event, one that many described as “unheard of”, offers the opportunity for denouement. Without it, we might have felt the dissatisfaction of just another story about a tragic love triangle. The joint funeral of the two young men provides us with another story arc, one complete with the building tension that something could go terribly wrong, climaxing in a shocking sermon by one of the officiating clergymen. The “unraveling of the knots” of denouement is provided by two families who were torn with grief and disbelief, but who had the grace to take a step towards forgiveness. Such grace can often surprise us, even shock us in such a violent story, but as we return to ourselves and leave this once familiar time and place, we can breathe a sigh of relief that it did end this way, back in 1957.