Book: “The Town Built on Sorrow” by David Oppegaard
Publishing Info: Flux, September 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Book Description: Welcome to the strange mountain foothills town of Hawthorn, where sixteen-year-old Harper Spurling finds herself increasingly obsessed with the diary of a local 1860s pioneer girl while a serial killer runs unchecked through the area, dumping his victims into the town’s dark river. As Harper’s curiosity leads her closer and closer to the killer, she’ll have to think fast or join the killer’s growing list of victims. Because in Hawthorn, a town built on sorrow, the barrier between life and death is as fragile as an old, forgotten skull.
Review: First and foremost I’d like to give a huge thank you to both NetGalley, for providing me with this book, and David Oppegaard, whose FB post pointed me towards the book on NetGalley in the first place.
We are officially kicking off Horrorpalooza, in which I try and keep my focus (mostly) on horror/scary stories for the month of October! October is my very favorite month because of Halloween, and I intend to honor it with tales to chill your bones and give you nightmares! So let’s begin!
A few years ago I took a horror writing class at a local writing workshop in downtown Minneapolis. My teacher was a man named David Oppegaard, who also happened to be a friend of a friend. Not only did I enjoy his class immensely, I still see David at Halloween and Christmas parties each year, in which we stand over various punch bowls and talk about any and all things. David has written a few books, his previous book “The Firebug of Balrog County” a Minnesota Book Award Nominee (and one that I quite enjoyed). While that one was more realistic/contemporary teen fiction, his newest book “The Town Built on Sorrow” is straight up horror/thriller, with a little historical fiction thrown in for good measure. It’s a combination that works pretty well, and sets up for a dreamy and atmospheric setting.
We follow the storylines of three characters. The first is Harper, an ambitious and driven high school girl living in the small town of Hawthorn. She has been obsessing over the diary of a pioneer girl who was part of the settling party of the town in the 1800s, named Sofie Helle. Right off the bat I thought this was pretty unique, as what YA novels as of late have shown their lady protagonists having a healthy interest in history? Perhaps there are some, but I haven’t read them. The second is Olav, an outsider from his peers at the high school is is also, spoiler alert but not really, a serial killer. The third is Sofie Helle herself, through not only her diary, but also flashbacks to see what the diary never did. Of the three, I probably liked Harper’s the most, just because she did feel like a pretty typical teenage girl, and her interests were of interest to me. And since we know that Olav is bad news, it was rife with tension when we saw her slowly getting to know him and becoming attracted to him. I really liked that aspect of the story, as the suspense about her wellbeing would teeter towards unbearable. I also liked the Sofie story, as the dangers and horrors of the prairie to the untrained interloper can have dire consequences. Right out of the gate a baby is taken and eaten by a wolf, which really got my attention. You know from the get go that Hawthorn is going to have a dark pall over it, and darkness is indeed oozing off the page. It’s definitely a dark, dark book, as death is always just within striking distance, and watching it slowly circle Harper in the form of Olav is distressing. And then when a strange dark form appears in a dark room part way through the book, well, the gothic tension just shuddered and oozed off of the page, and damn was it effective. The blend of real life horror and supernatural horror works well here, and I almost always imagined Hawthorn with a dense fog because of how Oppegaard builds it in the reader’s mind.
But while the atmospheric notes are tight and on point, the characters themselves, likable as some were, kind of fell a bit flat for me. I liked Harper enough but she didn’t really stand out too much outside of her interest in history. Olav gave me the creeps to be sure, but it was definitely rooted in his actions and not in who he was as a person. Sofie, too, is likable enough, but there was little connection to her for me and little investment in what exactly did happen to her. I suppose that I was worried for Harper as I read the book, but only because you are supposed to be.
So while the characters themselves didn’t do much for me, Hawthorn the town was enough of a character in and of itself that the chills there made up for it. I think that “The Town Built on Sorrow” would be the perfect read for a chilly autumn night this Halloween season. So wrap yourself in a blanket, pick it up, and if you live in small town setting or in a place with forest and nature surrounding you, maybe try not to get too freaked out as you read it. I’m sure come Halloween I will get to talk to David about this story, and I know that I will definitely give him props for Hawthorn and it’s demons.
Rating 7: Tense and atmospheric, “The Town Built on Sorrow” weaves three stories together over two time periods. While the characters were kind of flat, the setting was eerie and unsettling.
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