Brutal and Beautiful

A REview of CHarles Dodd White’s Lambs of Men

By Chris McGinley

Novelist Charles Dodd White knows the Appalachian mountainside.  He knows the flora, the fauna, the geography.  He knows the waterways and the weather.  He knows how the light hits the trees at different times of day, and the way the air of the different seasons touches the skin.  There’s a rare mountain authenticity running throughout his work.  Of course, none of this would matter if he didn’t know the people. 

But he does.  He knows them intimately, in fact.

Lambs of Men was originally published in 2010, but somewhere along the line it went out of print.  Happily, the growing Appalachian crime imprint, Shotgun Honey Books, decided to re-issue this excellent novel.  We should all be grateful, because Lambs of Men is an eerie page turner, a novel that will remain in readers’ heads long after the reading. 

The story centers on a father and son duo in the years after the first world war.  Hiram Tobit is a combat veteran returned to his home in the hills of North Carolina to work as a Marine recruiter, not the most popular of vocations in the region.  Like many of the characters White creates, Hiram suffers from domestic trauma, like his father, Sloane—facts that figure crucially.  A good woodsman and tracker, Hiram is deputized by the local sheriff whose posse seeks a deranged and dangerous local, someone Hiram’s father knows, an old friend, actually.  The story spans the search, the gruesome discovery, and the trial.  It’s chock full of tension and surprising moments that transform passages of typical mystery writing into transcendent prose.  Indeed, there’s a real poetry to White’s writing, something penetrating and beautiful that often reveals larger truths about characters, about life and loss. 

In one memorable scene, Hiram and a disabled veteran friend trek across the mountainside on their way back home:

At twilight they watched a herd of does moving along a ridgeline paralleling the causeway, the deer’s breath visible in the air as a smoky chain loosed on the last faded illumination of the day already gone.  The talked about the beauty of such a sight and afterward rode through the darkness while Hiram silently remembered how many wonders and horrors he and his friend had seen and learned to accept in what were still such young lives.  He knew there was something tragic in having been asked so much by life so soon, but he supposed they were not alone in this.  From what Hiram had seen, men were doomed to repeat the sins of not only their fathers, but all their ancient forbears on back to Cain.  That was the true mark upon man, scripted in his very blood.

It’s this kind of interiority in White’s writing that is so moving, so expertly delivered, and also so important to larger themes.  To wit, many of White’s characters possess the ability to recognize their own tragedy, to identify their own sad fate, and to see the lasting turmoil ahead of them.  It’s a sickness to be borne, forever if need be, or so the characters seem to think.  There’s also a highly Appalachian quality to all of this.  White’s hardscrabble, mountain people accept their lot as part and parcel of their rugged lifestyle, a sentiment shared by the women of this novel, like Sloane’s wife, or the sorrowful widow who runs the boarding house.  But while White conveys this collective mountain sadness beautifully, there is also a hopefulness present, a promise of a respite against the overwhelming mournfulness.

Earlier I mentioned that White knows the landscape of the region.  His terrains come to life throughout the novel, another of the unique joys in reading it.  Of course, nature can be both threatening and spectacular in Lambs of Men, both hostile and cleansing.  In one harrowing section, the sheriff’s posse attempt to ford a ferocious river on their mounts during the night:

The rope snapped taut as the working horseflesh strained to keep the interval against the charging current.  Halfway across one of the horses reared invisibly in the dark and Hiram could feel the gray horse lean back under the burden, the slanted rush of the waters and the tension of the rope wrenching away.  The men’s yells and oaths were swallowed by the wailing of the beast.  Hiram drove his heels hard and clawed his fingers into the mane, and the gray answered and pulled until they lunged clear, great gouts of floodwater sluicing onto solid ground from both man and horse.  The others scrambled in, all of them breathing great gasps, a gathering of survivors, terrible, amphibious and humbled.

There’s a kinetic sense to such passages, a tension White produces through use of strong verbs and strong nouns.  Simply put, he keeps us on edge.  Elsewhere he writes quieter scenes, tranquil ones more fitting to the reflective Hiram, Sloane, and Nara, Sloane’s wife.

Lambs of Men is a fantastic novel, at once gripping and thoughtful.  In rendering the turmoil of both Hiram and his father, and in creating a thoroughly eerie narrative involving a horrifying crime, White manages to produce a unique species of work—a story that is both a nail biter and a brutal, poetic work about loss and sorrow, about Appalachia, in so many senses. 

This is a book to be reckoned with.

Lambs of Men by Charles Dodd White

author Chris McGinley

Chris McGinley

Chris McGinley is the author of Coal Black (Shotgun Honey Books, 2019). He also writes for LitHub and other outlets. He lives with his wife in Lexington, KY, where he teaches middle school.