Perpetual Gloom: A two rut-road along The Boloney Trail
Independently Published (2021)
Reviewed by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (08/2022)
“Perpetual Gloom: A two rut-road along The Boloney Trail” is the first book in The Boloney Trail trilogy by Shelah Johnson. Founded on true events, the story renders a disconcerting tale that launches during the Great Depression, a dismal, unforgiving period in American history which left many destitute, broken—or dead.
Readers follow the Hornbeck family—humble, devout, and planted firmly in their beliefs that hard, honest work will lead to a better life—on Earth or in the kingdom of Heaven. From JC and Martha Hornbeck’s simple living to their sons’ Monroe (Roe) and Wyatt’s desperation to climb out from under their father’s relentless thumb, the Hornbeck’s itinerant existence takes them far from home in what becomes more than a quest for a better life, but a quest for mere survival.
Wow, wow—WOW! To say I had a profound journey reading “Perpetual Gloom” would understate the entire experience, and yet it is perhaps the most accurate description I can deliver. Weighty, insightful, and a literal encounter in authenticity, “Perpetual Gloom” is aptly titled, not only for the darkness the time period encapsulates, but the consistent undertones of despair and hopelessness shrouding the Hornbeck’s and others like them.
“… whenever JC hit the wall, he hit the highway. It’s what families like his did for generations. It’s how they kept hope alive.”
“Perpetual Gloom” is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s, “The Grapes of Wrath.” In fact, the Pulitzer prize-winning story makes an appearance in “Perpetual Gloom” when a few of the characters catch it playing at the local picture show, only to emerge stricken by the realities of their lot in life; a haunting scene indeed. “Usually, Wyatt came away from the picture show feeling rejuvenated, but tonight, at fifteen, his pride fell below his knees, and he sensed that he was slowly sinking into muddy waters.” Imagine seeing your struggles on the big screen presented as mere entertainment for the masses. This is where Johnson excels, taking us deep inside the reality of those lives most drastically affected by hardship; the lives that built America.
The writing is exceptional. Hard-core and unembellished, Johnson doesn’t mince words, and the story would not have worked if she had. It’s the genuine dialect, sharp characterizations, and dazzling visuals she creates that provide a meticulous representation of the era. A couple of my favorites:
“Dang if that girl ain’t got a voice that could chip paint…”
“That’a teach ya sons of bitches! Keep to ya own patch!”
Add to that, and as shown in the quotes above, Johnson’s characters are pretty amazing. Full of personality and gumption, they are among some of the strongest and determined personalities I’ve ever met. And, yes, I felt like I met them and was a part of their plight, though unlike the Hornbeck’s, there were many times I wavered in the face of adversity. Whether warm and inviting, beaten and downtrodden, or conniving and cruel, these characters wiggle their way into your thoughts even when you’re not reading!
The parallels between the treatment of oppressed, marginalized, and stigmatized groups in “Perpetual Gloom” and those in today’s society do not go unnoticed. There are many comparisons in the story that should keep us all up at night, from religion-pushing zealotry to white supremacy, misogyny, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, and what abortion looks like when forced underground (turpentine douches anyone)? It is in these areas where Johnson’s extensive research shines. Readers will learn a lot about American history, if they so choose, from the ample footnotes provided as necessary. I’m typically not a big fan of footnotes, but these tidbits of information were so pertinent to the story that I found myself looking forward to learning as I was being entertained. For instance, in the anti-immigration, white supremacy corner, we learn in California in the LATE 1940s (let that sink in), there was a group called the California Citizens Association who were “hell-bent” on keeping the state white and prosperous:
“When them fields was overflowin’ with tomatoes and corn, they went in and burnt what they couldn’t sell, just to begrudge hungry people.”
As mentioned above, there are extensive parallels that make readers realize we haven’t made much progress in some areas at all, and I thoroughly appreciate the author’s efforts and attention to detail.
Overall, “Perpetual Gloom” is an incredible journey. If I could give it more than 5-Stars I would. I’m eagerly awaiting books two and three in the series to see where the Hornbeck’s lead us next and was more than excited to learn “Perpetual Gloom” is being adapted into a screenplay. Until then, I also recommend the audiobook; the narration is exceptional and will take you even deeper into the lives of the characters.