It's been years since a character in a book stirred me so that I came away feeling I'd known her all my life.
First-time novelist Sandra Cline has breathed an unforgettable spirit into Alabama teen Pug Sheridan, who comes of age in 1915 surrounded by the Ku Klux Klan, fire and brimstone religion, impending war and the mysticism of both a grandmotherly Cherokee Indian and a secret, witchcraft-practicing mentor.
The story begins in 1908 when 10-year-old Sadie Lou Sheridan, nicknamed "Pug," and six friends start a girls club in a cave in the woods, and begin meeting there at night when the moon is full. The early giggles and antics soon give way to more serious gatherings as they grow up and their lives become complicated.
These were the days when girls married young - the first group member to say her vows does so at 13, and with her previously widowed husband come five children - so adult seriousness quickly takes hold.
That the girls group includes both a Cherokee Indian and an African-American increasingly spells trouble for Pug and her parents, who receive anonymous notes and other sinister warnings from the local Klan, whose members don't think white families should be mixing with those of other races.As the story progresses, the Klan activity demands the attention of Pug's father, the local U.S. marshal whose job is to keep the peace and to arrest those disturbing it. By pursuing charges against those suspected of burning the homes of local black families and of perpetrating other heinous crimes, T.H. Sheridan makes enemies in the religious community, where many people back the Klan.
Pug's hotheadedness and her determination to settle scores her way fuel the fire further. Ultimately, the gang rape of a friend by Klan members sends her hell-bent on a mission that threatens to destroy her.
Pug's connections to loved ones both alive and dead carry her through. At some point, most of the characters survive a crisis because people who love them, or ghosts of those who once loved them, hold them tight.
The book's believability kept me reading late into the night. I had no trouble believing friends would go to such great lengths to save each other, or that people could be so cruel to each other. The human element rings true, as does the mystical. The first time you look into your future husband's eyes, the world is never the same. Ghosts do exist, I came away believing. And the hair from the tail of a black cat, mixed with good red liquor, might just cure the most terrible illness.
When Sandra Cline decided to leave a successful talk radio career behind to write "Pug Sheridan," the literary world was graced with a timeless new heroine. Whether Pug is someday enshrined with the likes of Louisa May Alcott's Jo March remains to be seen.