Second Chances wrapped up in a mystery involving art (Edenton, NC 1939-40 and 2018): What if you were asked to do something way beyond your expertise, but it could give you a second chance at life? Would you take it?
That question underlies Diane Chamberlain’s Big Lies in a Small Town, her new, atmospheric, immensely engaging mystery (actually many) involving art (and much more) – her thirtieth novel. What may surprise and delight you is the art is drawn from unfamiliar historical facts.
Deftly tying the artistic theme and the freedom creativity brings to one’s soul, other Freedom themes are tackled: freedom from physical imprisonment and the mind’s “imaginary prison” caused by emotional anguish and mental illness; and freedom from oppression, be it political, economic, or cultural.
Also in the air is a budding contemporary romance.
A lot to unravel in 400 fast-moving pages, but these issues are smartly woven together so chapters in dual time frames flow into each other, fitting puzzle pieces together in a suspenseful and satisfying way. Keep that in mind as the mysterious art plot and two storylines nearly eighty years apart connect piece by piece.
A Prologue introduces the murder of a white man discovered by two black children during the Depression in the South. They run away, afraid of racist consequences. From there the two narratives begin, telling the stories of two twenty-something, white female art students: Anna Dale (1939-40) from Plainfield, New Jersey (the author’s hometown), and Morgan Christopher (2018) from North Carolina (where the author lives).
Set in Edenton, a small town where “the South was nothing like where what you saw was what you got,” warning not to be fooled by the serenity of the landscape. Confirmed when Anna disappears in 1940. Enter Morgan, who becomes invested in finding out what happened to Anna.
Located on a peaceful stretch of water, the Abermarle Sound, on the Inner Banks (versus the better known Outer Banks), Edenton was a port town that thrived on commerce, but was also a place where slaves from Africa entered the South. A stark legacy in contrast to being named “one of the prettiest towns in the South.” Like Anna’s art tale with its dark underbelly.
Both women were artists-in-training. Anna graduated high school majoring in art. Morgan was a junior studying art at the University of North Carolina, but her path was cut short because of a crime she did not commit. She’s served one year of a three-year prison term when we meet her.
A passion for art links Anna and Morgan generally and very specifically. In 1939, Anna won a national art contest aimed at selecting artists to paint murals to adorn post offices around the country. Fast forward to Morgan, who ends up restoring Anna’s lost mural, disappearing like she did. Both women didn’t consider themselves artists, certainly not for the beyond-their-abilities task before them. How will Anna depict Edenton when the drawing she submitted was for a New Jersey post office? She’ll need to paint characteristic images that represent a town in the South where she’s never been. “How do you capture the true feeling of a place?” asks Anna. Chamberlain shows how a skilled writer does that with descriptive prose.
Morgan finds herself with a different set of challenges when from out-of-the-blue she has a chance at freedom if she can restore Anna’s lost mural that has mysteriously be found after all these years. The thing is she doesn’t have a clue about the specialized field of art restoration. And, she’s told failure means returning to jail.
Both women are desperate to alter the sorrowful, lonely trajectory of their lives. Anna just lost her beloved, single mother who suffered from manic-depression; Morgan is incarcerated. Both take the leap, with vastly dissimilar outcomes. One with an unanticipated twist.
Details about the mural, particularly its 12 ft. by 6 ft. size, may lead you to suspect this fictional things-are-not-what-they-seem novel may be inspired by history. Turns out it is. The 48 States Competition held in 1939 is the year Anna’s story begins. Run not as an FDR New Deal program administered by the Work Project’s Administration (WPA), but oddly by an unknown Painting and Sculpture division in the Treasury Department (ended in 1943), with the same employment mission. The competition selected artists to paint murals to hang in the WPA’s newly constructed post offices. Interestingly, one of Anna’s chapters is dated December 14, 1939, the same date Life magazine published the winning artists’ State submissions. And yes, the images were painted on large 12 ft. x 6 ft. canvases.
Another significant date – August 5, 2018 – haunts Morgan. It’s her barely two months deadline to restore Anna’s mural. Inconceivable! Can she pull it off? If so, how? And, why that specific date?
The stakes are high for both women. All Anna has left in the world is a precious leather journal from her mother and advice to “not be afraid to try something new.” Morgan’s torment is related to an “accident,” which we learn of soon enough so we can understand what Morgan is emotionally going through. Whereas we have to wait until the last 50 pages for all of Anna’s puzzle pieces to link up.
As Morgan learns how to clean the badly mildewed, filthy canvas, what emerges are sordid details, shocking, especially given the otherwise tame, conventional images. Did Anna add these? If so, why?
There’s a character in the novel who figures in Anna’s and Morgan’s story: Jesse Jameson Williams. A teacher introduced Anna to him because of his art talent. Mentoring seventeen-year-old, black student Jesse was decried by the prejudiced town. Jesse went on to become a famous black artist, living in New York and France, later returning to his North Carolina roots to raise his daughter, Lisa. Recently he’s passed away, leaving Lisa with a confounding, demanding will dictating very specific, mysterious instructions as to how she must open up an art gallery in his name, choosing Morgan to restore Anna’s missing mural. The mural is to be prominently displayed. Why? How did he know who Morgan was? Why pick her?
Chamberlain drops references to North Carolina artists. Best known is black artist Romare Bearden famous for his distinctive collage style of painting, awarded the National Medal of Art, like fictional Jesse. Was Bearden inspiration for Jesse?
Edenton is an intriguing place to set the novel (real NC murals in other towns) because of its storied history, dating back to the 1700s. In colonial times, it was once the State capital. A Tea Party, like Boston’s, protested British rule, a very early, unusual example of political activism by women. Quite opposite the conservative view toward the role of women in society during Anna’s time.
Balancing Anna’s darkness is Morgan’s evolving lightness. Oliver is the curator of the soon-to-be-opened art gallery, so he and Morgan end up working together. He touches Morgan’s heart, and ours. Oliver’s sensitive, selfless, nurturing character, and their tenderly developing relationship is the part you may love most.
Morgan thinks Oliver is “one of the best people I’ve ever known.” But how does she know it’s love when she’s never “felt love from another human being” before? How sad she’s so unsure, how marvelous the answer unfolds.