Content Warnings: death of a spouse.
Leesa Cross-Smith’s first novel, Whiskey & Ribbons, released this month by Hub City Press, was a priority on my to-read list. It’s based on a short story from her collection entitled Every Kiss a War, which I loved. In fact, the it is one story I remember in detail. It is also called “Whiskey & Ribbons,” and you can read it at Carve Magazine.
The novel is narrated by three people: Evangeline, Eamon, and Dalton. Each chapter cycles through these three in order, so if Evangeline leaves a cliffhanger, you have to read Eamon’s and then Dalton’s story before you get back to her. In the beginning, readers learn that Eamon was a police office killed in the line of duty. He and Evangeline had been married a couple of years, but the real tragedy is Evangeline is 9 months pregnant when he’s killed. The baby is born 16 days after his father’s death. Eamon’s brother, Dalton, moves in to help care for his sister-in-law and new nephew.
Evangeline narrates the present, and Dalton and Eamon take us to the past: when Eamon and Evangeline first met, how Dalton and Eamon became brothers after Dalton’s mom committed suicide and he didn’t know his father, through Dalton’s tepid relationships with his on-again/off-again girlfriend, and the news that Evangeline is pregnant.
The relationships of the three characters are beautifully complicated. In Eamon’s sections, we learn he’s an endearing, stand-up guy. But in the present, Eamon is dead; will Evangeline and Dalton fall in love now that they’re living together and co-parenting? Should they? They loved each other before as in-laws, so are they already loving/in love? Or should Dalton pursue a relationship he’s invested in with his co-worker, because by living with Evangeline, he’s putting his life on hold due to a promise he made his brother? There’s no doubt Evangeline grieves for her deceased husband. This scene is from shortly after his death, but before the baby is born:
Backyard-wandering, full-moon pregnant in my turquoise maternity dress and tobacco-colored cowboy boots, I’d lose my way. Dalton would find me. He was always finding me. He’d try to lure me inside with lemon water, with sticky, stinky cheeses or a small green bowl of almonds, the darkest chocolate chips. He would shake the bowl, like I was a kitten waiting to hear the rattle of food.
In this scene, the grief is for Eamon, but the focus is on Dalton’s care for her. Leesa Cross-Smith beautifully makes clear the love there, even when the characters don’t see it. Which can be one of the more frustrating parts of the novel. Evangeline — in the present — asks Dalton who he last had sex with, if he has a crush on his co-worker, if he wants to move out of her home. Her emotions wrecked, she could sound like a dependent high school girl with low self-esteem. But she is dependent. And she is broken by her grief. I plowed through her rude questions and comments and accepted that she doesn’t have to be likable.
Whiskey & Ribbons is unique. The cast is made up of African Americans, but this isn’t a novel about race (which Cross-Smith points out on Twitter, wondering why people feel it had to be). More surprising to me were the healthy male relationships. Dalton and Eamon express emotion, yet do guy stuff; they talk about women’s appearances, but are respectful overall. The brothers aren’t competitive, either. Recognizing their differences, they support each other. Most surprising is Evangeline’s admission that she was a virgin until marriage. I know it’s not common, but it’s also a chunk of the population that’s ignored/dismissed in fiction.
Cross-Smith writes beautifully throughout, creating words that fit together like a language collage that makes perfect sense. When Evangeline and Dalton kiss on page 3, Evangeline explains:
It was a kiss of ownership. It was a hot, dripping wax seal. The kiss was a lock and key. The kiss was a creaky gate in the wind.
In one of his chapters, Eamon finds out a secret that he wasn’t meant to know. He describes his feelings about knowing what he does:
And now I was burdened with a secret that was never mine. A secret on loan. A ghost, haunting the wrong house.
A lovely, dreamy, challenging yet uplifting novel about family and love, Whisky & Ribbons is not to be missed.
Thank you to Hub City Press for sending me an ARC of Whiskey & Ribbons in exchange for an honest review.