Focus of Hart’s latest novel on two boys’ friendship
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen, because “The Last Child” is all new John Hart.
Salisbury’s best-selling author made headlines with “The King of Lies,” showing the darker side of Salisbury (all fictional, of course). “Down River” stayed in Rowan County with a topical plot and another tortured hero.
“The Last Child” pulses with relentless energy, layers of plot development and an unforgettable main character.
And Hart will again launch his book tour and raise funds for the LandTrust of Central North Carolina in a May 10 event at Salisbury Station.
“I lost a lot of sleep over this one,” Hart says. The 15-month writing period was tough. “I’m now cursed with the awareness that you’re only as good as your next book. … I can’t afford to drop the ball.”
Well, he’s whacked it out of the ballpark.
His unforgettable hero is 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon, a damaged kid who’s lost everything he ever believed in, along with his twin sister, apparently snatched by a stranger.
“Johnny was so real, so fragile, so damaged, he’s still with me,” Hart says.
Readers first met Johnny in a scene in “Down River.” He was fishing in the river, a “dusty boy in a soft yellow world,” Hart says, a typical country kid, just living life.
“I had to ask myself, what would take that away? What plot device would destroy his world, his soft yellow world?” Hart wanted to see what loss would do to Johnny, how he would deal with it.
Hart’s handling of this boy is masterful. For the first time, he’s using a third-person narrator. In his first and second books, he used first-person. “They were white males, easy to live in for me,” but with Johnny, he needed time to hear his voice, and he needed to tell things Johnny could not see or know.
Everything Johnny has been taught to trust betrays him ó his parents, the police, the community, his faith. When he loses his sister, his mother falls apart, his father runs away and the preacher keeps telling him to pray harder. The cop he thought would find his sister cannot. Where does he turn?
He turns inward, finding strength in Indian lore, Celtic practices, ancient religions, and sets out on a dangerous mission.
Hart, who says his characters really write the story, “as crazy as that seems,” has listened well to Johnny and found answers, more questions and a multi-layered plot “that sort of feathered together.”
One of the characters he’s most proud of is Levi, a huge, simple-minded black man who is capable of murder. “He turned out so rich,” Hart says. It gave him a chance to explore the history of slavery, both black and Native American, telling about the Hush Arbors of old, where slaves could practice their religion.
Levi hears God speaking to him, trusts him and is afraid of him. “He started out as a gang-banger from Charlotte, but that was all wrong,” Hart says. Instead, he is a mix of innocence and violence, a victim and a savior who completes a circle that brings honor back to his family.
Hart creates Clyde Hunt, a determined, obsessed detective. “I generally don’t believe in the tortured detective, but I needed him to be that way.”
Hunt likes Johnny, probably better than his own son. He sees what’s good in him.
“One reviewer said Johnny is the boy all men wish they’d been,” Hart says.
Johnny’s best friend and cohort in his search for his sister is Jack, another misfit. He has a withered arm, super-athlete brother and dangerous father.
“The book is really about the friendship of the two boys. … There’s a nobility in them being together after everything,” he says. The everything makes up the plot of the novel.
Hart destroys Johnny’s family. “I needed Johnny to be utterly alone,” Hart says. “I needed to isolate him. … If she (mother Katherine) were coping, he wouldn’t be out poking into dark places. … Katherine suffered for the greater good of the book.”
Johnny’s father’s disappearance is not as simple as it seems, and Johnny ends up completing what his father started.
“I gave dads such a bad rap in the first two books, this one had to be better.”
The story takes place in Raven County ó sounds like Rowan, but isn’t ó not quite the Piedmont, not quite the flood plains, not quite the sandhills. But a river runs through it, too.
The pacing, Hart says, just flows out of the characters. He likes to end his chapters with a bit of wordplay or imagery to create an emotion that makes readers want to go on.
It’s unlikely anything could stop readers of this story.
Amid all the loss and disappointment, though, Hart felt he owed his characters and readers some redemption.
“Johnny is older than his years, by circumstance. At the end of the day, he recognizes everyone is doing the best they can. … It has to have some emotional satisfaction at the end.
“The publisher says this is an evolutionary jump for me. I don’t remember consciously doing anything different.”
Even he is afraid to admit the novel has spiritual overtones.
“There’s so many maybes in this book … lots to chew on, so many deeper meanings, and I never set out that way.”
You can tell by his smile he’s pleased with the results.