Nature or nurture? It’s a question that has long intrigued sociologists, scientists, and parenting experts. Does the DNA we carry from birth lock us into a lifelong script for behavior? Or does our environment play an equal, or maybe even more powerful, role?
Amy Engel’s intriguing mystery, The Familiar Dark, places those questions front and center. Eve Taggert was raised by a strong yet abusive mother in Barren Springs, a small town in the Missouri Ozarks, one of the poorest places in the country. After Eve has her own daughter, Junie, she vows to be a better parent. And she succeeds. Eve’s job as a waitress in the town’s diner keeps her just above the poverty level. But what Eve isn’t able to provide Junie in material goods, she makes up for in the attention and love she lavishes on her daughter. Everyone who knows 12 year-old Junie raves about her sunny disposition, her kindness and her respect for others. She never complains about her “bedroom,” an alcove separated by a yellow and white paisley curtain.
All of Eve’s hopes for her daughter come crashing down one morning when her brother, Cal, a Barren Springs police officer, arrives at the diner with the worst news a parent can ever receive. Junie and her best friend, Izzy, were found dead – murdered – in a rundown park in a deserted part of town. Viewing Junie’s body at the funeral home, Eve holds in her tears. “I witnessed her first word, her first steps, her first fever…but not this…her last breath…I wasn’t there in the moment when she needed me the most.”
Although Izzy’s parents, Zach and Jenny Logan, have a funeral for their daughter, Eve bypasses that ritual, deciding to cremate Junie without a memorial service. She goes to seek solace from the one person least likely to give it, her mother. Engel paints a vivid picture of what it was like for Eve and Cal to grow up with a mother who never spared the rod – or anything else she could use – against a child. Yet there were moments, Eve recalls, when her mother treated her with kindness, reading to her, making her hot chocolate. That she could change on a dime was what kept both Eve and Call on guard. While her mother does offer Eve comfort, even holding her while she cries about Junie being gone, what Eve has come to her mother to get isn’t sympathy, but strength. “You find him, Eve,” her mother tells her. “Whoever did this. You find him. And you make him pay.”
Is someone who lives in Barren Springs the murderer? The most likely suspect is Jimmy Ray, Eve’s former boyfriend, who operates a strip joint and has been known to be violent. Sheriff Land also has a history with Eve, the incident seared into her memory. Another suspect comes to light when Eve reads Junie’s diary and discovers that Izzy was dating an older guy. If Izzy broke it off with him, did he seek revenge and end up killing both girls?
In a small town there are many secrets and as Engel teases them out they fill in the puzzle. The ending is both shocking and satisfying. Does it answer the nature vs. nurture questions? Your call.
Author Photo Credit: Trish McBrown Photography
Top photo: Bigstock