October 11, 2022
Hardcover, 978-1665024082, 350 pages
“’We just tell ourselves whatever we have to, don’t we? To just keep on. We conjure up some lie about control, to convince ourselves we have any.’”
Children are fragile and resilient; vulnerable and courageous; and easily broken, sometimes beyond repair. Beasts of the Earth by James Wade oscillates between 1965 in the Louisiana bayou and 1987 in Comal County, Texas, eventually melding together into a single narrative. In 1965, young Michael Fischer and his little sister, Doreen, live with their mother in abject poverty in the bayou, struggling for basic necessities. When the father, Munday Fischer, slinks back home after leaving prison, both Michael’s and Dori’s childhood and innocence shatter irrevocably. In 1987, Harlen LeBlanc works with the Grounds Department at the high school in Comal County, harboring dark secrets and trauma masked by his reticence and solitary existence.
Beasts of the Earth is a profound journey into the human psyche when the burden of trauma and heartache weigh heavy across time. The author snares the reader’s attention through excellent prose and the themes of human suffering and difficult choices, which can be uncomfortable to process yet still engaging and thought-provoking because of their unfortunate certainty. When a coworker in the Grounds Department is arrested for the murder of a high school girl, LeBlanc is convinced of the man’s innocence and tries to help. In 1965, Michael runs away from home and stumbles into the life of Remus and his dog, Chester, whose singular lives are winding down. As Michael Fischer in 1965 settles into a new life bereft of human cruelty yet still woeful from the bitter passage of time, and as Harlen LeBlanc in 1987 spirals from being the town oddity because of his aloofness to becoming embroiled in the young girl’s murder, the pieces of the overall narrative begin to fall into place, slowly and brilliantly.
With Beasts of the Earth swiftly unfolding, readers are confronted with the dark truth of allowing residual trauma and agony to fester and torment, ultimately providing the wicked with everlasting permission to maintain a victorious hold over broken hearts and fractured minds. When current events and actions derail LeBlanc and strip him of his self-imposed invisibility, the reader might waver between pegging him as a hero or a villain, perhaps settling on a bit of both or maybe simply viewing him as a pitiful man battling a ghastly secret. Overall interpretation of this exquisite fiction is up for grabs; however, the author offers a bit of analysis in the prologue with the watchmaker analogy, providing readers with significant food for thought before the story even begins. The watchmaker, who is the author of time itself, works tirelessly over his timepieces, fashioning each one uniquely before setting them adrift in a chaotic world.
While Beasts of the Earth crashes to a melancholy end, the story could and should serve as a reminder and admonition to seek healing and redemption from a painful past rather than allowing the misery to blister and destroy. Unfortunately, time does not always heal all wounds, and the watchmaker will inevitably turn a blind eye and ear to the suffering of its creations. James Wade’s Beasts of the Earth showcases these realities with literary precision.
“I believe the ultimate judgment on a man’s life comes from the things he should have done but didn’t―who he might have been, instead of who he turned out to be.”
James Wade lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country with his wife and daughter. He is the author of Beasts of the Earth (2022), River, Sing Out (2021) and All Things Left Wild (2020), a winner of the MPIBA Reading the West Award for Debut Fiction and a recipient of the Spur Award for Best Historical Novel from the Western Writers of America.