Mississippi murder unearths family secrets in ‘Myth of Perpetual Summer’

Tragic event reunites sister with her estranged brothers.
The AJC bookshelf

The AJC bookshelf

In the prologue of Susan Crandall's "The Myth of Perpetual Summer," protagonist Tallulah James is shocked to learn via a newscast that her younger brother, Walden, has been arrested for murder back home in Mississippi. Nine years earlier, Tallulah, 17, hitchhiked to California, severing all ties with her family, determined to free herself from its dysfunction. But that meant leaving behind her three siblings, young twins Walden and Dharma, and her beloved older brother, Griff. Thinking of them, she muses, "Perhaps our extraordinary bond comes from the strain of madness that runs in our blood, the love and hate tangling until they're braided into an unbreakable rope, a lifeline and a noose … It's time to admit that, perhaps, the blood that knotted love and hate may have, in the end, made murderers of us all."

Those are some mighty words to dangle in front of a reader, and the novel does deliver a Southern gothic, you-can’t-go-home-again-because-home-has-never-left-you story replete with the racial (and otherwise) tensions of the1960s, a slow-to-mature romance and time-worn family secrets. The novel’s greatest strength, however, is Tallulah. Her individual struggle to understand how those family secrets, and the lies necessary to keep them, have damaged her entire family is entirely credible and rightly complicated, even if the other characters are not always convincing.

“The Myth of Perpetual Summer” by Susan Crandall

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Like “Whistling Past the Graveyard,” Crandall’s previous novel, “The Myth of Perpetual Summer is also a coming-of-age story. Though some chapters are narrated by Tallulah as an adult, most are flashbacks narrated by her as a child whose awareness evolves as she ages. Her naïve but articulate observations are part of the reading pleasure. At 10, for example, Tallulah already understands that “the James family, at least our little branch of it, can use all the respectability it can get its hands on.” In town, there is adult gossip about “bad blood,” the disappearance of her great-uncle George, and the death of her grandfather, Elliot, along with childish bullying from the son of the police chief.

And in her Gran’s house, aptly named Pearl River Plantation, there are yellowed photos with people cut out of them, some questionable initials carved into a hidden locket, and Gran herself, the somewhat familiar Southern matriarch more focused on appearances and propriety than dealing truthfully with the past — or, for that matter, the present, when it comes to her son, Drayton.

As Tallulah enters adolescence, an explanation for her father’s erratic and extreme mood swings becomes urgent. Whether Drayton is in his “shadows,” days of intense sadness, or in his “hurricanes,” days of intense energy and excitement, Tallulah feels increasingly responsible for parenting the twins and keeping the family functioning, especially when Griff’s unjust run-in with the police might be linked to their father.

It doesn’t help that Gran dismisses Tallulah’s concerns. Even when Drayton drowns in the river, Gran denies that he is ill, his illness, of course, being bipolar disorder, although it isn’t until years later that Tallulah understands this. Those same years later, after Tallulah’s relationships fail and after Gran’s secrets are revealed, Tallulah makes a poignant connection between the two of them: “Isolation is just another form of denial, the one I’ve chosen to protect my inner self.”

Author Susan Crandall

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The feelings Tallulah and her siblings have toward their mother aren’t as generous. Margo, an activist, disappears again and again to attend protests for causes ranging from nuclear weapons to the civil rights movement. She is rarely home and badly neglects all the James children. Teenaged Tallulah summarizes, “It’s crazy but I feel Margo not being here way more than I ever felt her being here.”

Unfortunately, Crandall never fully explores either Margo’s conviction as an activist, or her lack thereof as a mother, although the relationship she and Drayton share is undeniably a near-dangerous passion. “Obsessive, Gran called it, the way they saw only each other, sometimes with eyes of love, sometimes loathing, but always full to the brim,” Tallulah explains.

When Drayton dies. Margo sends the twins to live with relatives up north, disappearing once and for all. Griff goes to live with Tallulah’s friend Ross and his wealthy family in New Orleans, leaving Tallulah alone to chase the California dream she shared with her brother. She disappears, too, not even telling her best friend Maisie — a character who never quite develops beyond the fact that she is black — where she is going and why.

Leaving and disappearing control much of the novel’s tension, so it is only right that there be a return. Tallulah’s journey from California back to Mississippi to help Walden comes after her boyfriend, Cody, leaves her. She fears that, like Margo, she doesn’t know how to love. But waiting for her, still hopeful for romance ever since he saved her from drowning in the river at age 14, is Ross. Though Walden’s freedom is unclear, aloof Dharma is the one who turns out like Margo, and Griff, who finally surfaces after his own disappearance, fears he will turn out like his father. Ultimately, Tallulah’s homecoming is fulfilling, for both her and the reader.

In keeping with her questioning of choices available to women, Crandall does not reduce Tallulah’s future to only Ross, for it will also include the treasured orchards at Pearl River Plantation. Although Gran’s myth of perpetual summer — “warmth and sunshine all winter long” — is indeed a myth, Tallulah will honor the James family tradition of staying connected to the land, that powerful river coursing beside it. Tallulah’s final “tossing” into the river of all those secrets and lies and disappearances that marred her childhood is a murder of sorts, but her freedom has already been beautifully hard won.


‘The Myth of Perpetual Summer’

by Susan Crandall

Gallery Books

350 pages, $16