Tim Sloan’s job as pastor in a small country church in Appalachia is a cover. He is really looking for his mother’s killer. During the search he becomes embedded in the small community and its web of relationships in ways he never anticipated. These relationships challenge both his cynicism and his religious beliefs and lead him to changes that surprise both him and his friends. More
Some people think Tim Sloan is a pastor who acts like a cop. Some think he is a cop masquerading as a pastor. It turns out they are both right.
Except that it’s no masquerade.
The story begins as Tim takes a position as pastor in a small country church deep in the heart of Appalachia. The job is a cover while he investigates his mother’s disappearance. Raised in a foster home until he was 18, Tim has always believed that his mother abandoned him at the age of five. Now he has learned that she had returned to the town of Cairns Grove to confront the wealthy man she claimed was Tim’s father and to demand child support. She never returned. Tim suspects she was murdered, and he intends to find the killer and avenge her death.
His investigation takes longer than he has planned, and over the course of a year he unwittingly becomes embedded in the small Appalachian community and its web of formal and informal family relationships in ways he never anticipated. These relationships challenge both his hard-edged cynicism and his religious beliefs and lead to a surprising revelation: His mother was indeed murdered but not by the person whom he suspects. This discovery forces him to deal with a crisis of faith and conscience.
The novel is built on layers of family issues: from the protagonist’s search for his mother’s killer to compensate for his own lack of a family, to the family crises among the people he is forced to deal with, to his involvement in what may be called a “family church,” even to his life in a small community that functions (or dysfunctions) as a family. At least one of his enemies in the novel is a person who claims to have “family values.”
Some of the novel’s tension comes from his outsider status in a close-knit community and his eastern tough-guy image, which leads him early on to a brawl in a parking lot with three young locals.
Another source of tension is his frustrated effort to find out what happened to his mother and to exact revenge on the person responsible for her disappearance. That she may have been killed by the man who fathered him is something he refuses to think about.
Among the enemies he makes in his search are the man he suspects of causing his mother’s disappearance, one of her lovers, and that man’s political ally, the former sheriff and county strongman.
Among his friends are the current sheriff and two of the church’s deacons who become reluctant partners in the quest to find the mother’s killer. He becomes especially close to two people who do not share his belief system One, a woman, becomes his romantic partner; the other, a man, openly boasts that he is the “village atheist.”
A minor parallel plot involves the crisis in one of the church families provoked by a husband’s serious abuse of his wife.
The story comes to a climax with the intrusion of an outside killer, the discovery of his mother’s bones, and his growing realization about who really caused his mother’s disappearance.
A subtitle of the novel could well be “A year in the life of Tim Sloan,” since it describes the changes he undergoes in the course of the novel. Not only does he abandon his unquestioning belief system for a more critical faith, he also makes decisions about his future that surprise both him and his friends.
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