Allen Eskens has proven himself to be one of my favorite authors. You probably know him from The Life We Bury. His latest novel is a stand-alone novel about Boady Sanden, a fifteen-year-old boy who finds himself in the crossfires of CORPS (Crusaders Of Racial Purity and Strength), a white supremacy group and his black neighbors who have moved to Jessup, Missouti to straighten up the local factory after an embezzlement scandal.
This story isn’t just another story about racial injustice, it’s much more than that. It’s about friendship, small town dynamics, and integrity. Boady sits in his Catholic school cafeteria and overhears a group of older boys plot to spill chocolate pudding on the only black girl in the school. In a spur of the moment decision, he sticks his foot out and trips one of the boys as he’s walking over to the girl. This sets off a series of events that will forever change Boady’s life.
Lida Poe has gone missing. Being a small town in Missouri during the 1970s, a black woman going missing doesn’t exactly make the front page of the newspaper. Jessup is a town where the local factory employs about half of the townspeople. When Charles Elgin, a black man with his wife, Jenna, and son, Thomas, is sent down from corporate to investigate suspected embezzlement, Jessup isn’t the most inviting of places.
Though a bit unexpected, a friendship between Boady and Thomas soon flourishes, but they find themselves the target of CORPS. How far are they willing to go to find out more about Lida Poe? When staring in the face of hate how will they react?
If you enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger, or Where the Crawdads Sing, this is a must read.
Interview with Allen Eskens
I loved this book, I reserve my five-star reviews for truly spectacular books. I was honored by being able to ask Allen Eskens a few questions about Nothing More Dangerous. I hope you enjoy and rush out to buy a copy of this book.
At the beginning of the novel, you state that this book was twenty years in the making. What made it challenging for you to write?
In 1992, when I started writing Nothing More Dangerous, I wasn’t a writer. I had never taken a creative writing class and I didn’t know what I was doing. It started as a short story that I wrote just for my own enjoyment. I liked Boady and wanted to turn that short story into something more, so I started studying the craft of writing. I studied and wrote for twenty years, and although I had a completed manuscript, I knew that it wasn’t ready. I put it aside, wrote and published five other novels and over the course of that time, I grew as a writer. I returned to Nothing More Dangerous two years ago and wrote it from scratch and am very happy with how it turned out.
The first encounter Boady and Thomas have of each other is them literally colliding next to the pond that Boady goes to spend his time. Personally, I feel this has a bit of foreshadowing of their friendship. Was this intentional and what significance does their meeting have?
I wish I could say that the circumstance of Boady’s and Thomas’s first meeting held a foreshadow, but in truth, I wanted Boady to have to work to earn Thomas’s friendship, so I made their first meeting fraught with problems, all caused (intentionally or unintentionally) by Boady.
One of the things I love about your writing is the characters are so dimensional and you really feel connected with them. I read this book aloud with my partner. My favorite character was Hoke and his was Jenna. How do you create your characters? In this book are they inspired by anyone you know?
The first thing I did when I returned to Nothing More Dangerous (after writing my other 5 novels) was to outline the story from beginning to end without looking at the previous manuscript. I knew the story but I wanted to write it from scratch to avoid the mistakes I had made in the previous draft. The first thing I did in my outline was to list every character and write what motivated them in the story. I gave every character a backstory. If I know who they are, deep down, I can write them with depth. All of the characters are drawn from my imagination, but they are real in my head (and in my outline) before I sit down to write.
This question is a bit cliché, but I have to ask it. Nothing More Dangerous is a great title for this book. Can you tell us a little about why that title spoke to you and how it represents the story?
I draw my titles from the themes of my stories. In the novel, Hoke is telling Boady about the nature of prejudice and racism, and he recites a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that “there is nothing in all the world more dangerous than sincere ignorance.” That is a perfect encapsulation of Boady’s starting point in the novel.
The story takes place in the small Ozark town of Jessup, Missouri. Which, while it is a small town, it’s really quite diverse. The story is centered around race, but really is much more than that. What challenges did you have keeping this balance of diversity and have the story not just be another story about racial injustice?
I think the key was to keep the focus of the story on the characters and the human dynamics. I wanted to show that racial animosity is often a rationalization for something else that is going on. For example, if you look closely, you will see that much of the racially charged violence about the shift in power for this small community and not so much about skin color.