In the Lonely Backwater
An excerpt from local author Valerie Nieman’s latest novel
Introduction by Cassie Bustamante
Local author Valerie Nieman knows a thing or two about weaving a thrilling tale of mystery complete with compelling and intricate characters. And her latest novel, In the Lonely Backwater, happens to be the perfect size for stuffing into your favorite reader’s stocking.
Maggie, an awkward high-schooler, is an outsider who lives on a small houseboat with her drunkard father in a sleepy North Carolina lake marina town, her mother having long run off to start a new life without her. In her disordered life, Maggie finds solace and order by losing herself in categorizing the plants around her.
Her world is disrupted when the body of her cousin Charisse is found shortly after a school dance. Because they’ve never been on the best of familial terms, Maggie is marked as a person of interest from the beginning.
Nieman tells us this book was inspired by an inscription on her senior yearbook: “A girl I barely remember wrote, ‘I hope all our misunderstandings are cleared up,’ and signed it, ‘Love.’ I do not remember the disagreement, but the emotional storms of high school came slamming back.”
Now, a peek inside:
I wondered if Detective Vann had memorized all the stuff in that little red notebook, which was nowhere in sight.
“She was messed up. I don’t know if it was drinks or something else. There was that big rip down the front of her dress.”
“Did she say anything about that?”
“Not to me. She and Nat went back in the trees and were talking. Then they came back and we all sat around and finished the bottle. I walked home.”
“Leaving Charisse and Nat and David all in the graveyard.”
“Anything else you remember?”
He doesn’t need to know all that I remember. I remember better about the real world than all this stuff with Charisse. I remember that Easter had come right when it was supposed to, the woods filling in green, with dogwood and fading redbud coloring the edges. Prom day came two weeks after Easter, even the oaks pushing out their leaves by that time. It had been a cool spring, late frosts, but the Thursday before prom the winds shifted; a breeze filled in from the southwest and put a chop on the lake. It turned really hot really fast, 90 degrees that afternoon. It was enough to raise a sweat during the day. By the time I got done with work and made it up to the gas station, it had cooled, just warm and nice, smell of cut grass and narcissus. The air began shifting around, more from the west, gusts and then dropping to nothing. By the time we headed to Old Trinity graveyard, clouds were filling in fast.
I remember in the graveyard, the smell of flowers rising up from Wisteria Lodge, a fallen-in plantation house whose owners now lived under the gravestones we sat on. I remember how headlights from cars on the highway moved across the graves in a certain way, depending if they were headed north or south. But then lights swung all the way across as a car turned onto the pike and stopped, and the lights stayed on, casting giant tree-shadows against the church for a long time. We could hear the motor running. Nat came out of his funk and was looking like WTF?, and Hulky stood up and started that way, then the lights and the engine cut off. We heard one door open and close. Next thing we knew, Charisse was standing inside the gate.
“Hey, guys?” Her voice rose way up at the end.
“Hey Charisse,” Nat blurted out. She followed his voice, uncertain as she walked across the graves, maybe because of high heels, but when she got to us we could see she was barefoot and there was a gash down the turquoise shimmer of her dress. Her face didn’t look right, but everyone looked ghoulish as the moon went in and out of the clouds.
I could feel the boys sweat, see how they repositioned themselves as they sat. Charisse was Charisse. Not Maggie. OH
Valerie Nieman is the author of In the Lonely Backwater and four earlier novels, and books of short fiction and poetry. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she is professor emeritus of creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University. In the Lonely Backwater can be found wherever books are sold.