Backlands continues Michael McGarrity’s Kerney family saga. It focuses on Matt, the third generation Kerney whose good sense and good humor reflect the loving determination of his mother Emma. His relationship with Patrick, his father, is troubled as Patrick has never been able to trust anyone nor ever trust in love.
This book takes us from the end of World War I to shortly after the invasion of Italy in World War II. It also takes us from Patrick’s childhood to his maturity. His mother, Emma, was ailing in the first novel and is dying in Backlands. She arranges Matt’s future with care, trying to protect him from his father who has lost her respect and trust. Patrick still struggles with the certainty than he will always be abandoned, continues to alienate people rather than risk his heart.
Like Hard Country, the novel moves quickly. It is sort of an anti-melodrama. Very dramatic things happen, murder, death, war, love and hatred. They are all in the mix but delivered with a laconic, understated narrative that feels so much more authentic and real than more flamboyant prose.
New Mexico is always an additional character in these novels. The land drives their lives. Matt and his father Patrick live by the seasons. When the land is kind to them, they thrive. In times of drought, they struggle. The sense of place is powerful, you can feel the heat shimmering on the parched land and be awed by the beauty and majesty of the mountains.
The novels are also peopled by interesting and well-realized secondary characters, including some passing characters who are real people, fictionalized for the story, but historically accurate. The relationships between Latinos and Anglos are realistic with some people seeing people as people and some people being the bigots that people can be. The Kerney’s have long, deep friendships among the Latino community.
The central arc of the story is the relationship between Matt and his father. He learns to respect his father and in time to understand him. Patrick is more mercurial, terrified of vulnerability and intimacy. How they move from alienation to mutual respect and even, perhaps, love is heartbreaking at times, but so very real.
I recommend this series. The novels are interesting. They are huge epic tales, but the kind of can’t put down sort of stories. I love the quiet, understated prose. I am looking forward to reading the third in the series, The Last Ranch which will be released May 17th.