After a failed first year of college in Cincinnati, Laurel Early returns defeated to her family tobacco farm. She has every intention of putting aside her aspirations and resuming a steady, predictable, good-enough life—one split between practicing taxidermy and helping her uncle with the crops, maybe someday marrying her logical-choice guy friend Ricky. The problem is, something’s gone rotten on the Early farm, and the legacy of her witchy mother’s suicide casts a shadow over Laurel. As magic courses through the woods and the town’s whispers, those long-hidden secrets become far more pressing. Because it isn’t friendly magic—it’s the kind that lets her pile of discard bones assemble itself into a murderous night-stalking creature.
Besides the awful haunting of her farm, Laurel has another problem: her troubled relationships with childhood friends Isaac, Garret, and Ricky. They all need to negotiate one of the major barriers of adulthood together: some folks are going to leave, and some folks are going to stay—which is further complicated by sexuality, class, and educational access. At its heart Wake the Bones is an Appalachian gothic, and it has all the necessary trappings (like, spooky deer corpses). Simultaneously, though, it’s a coming of age novel about four young people whose opportunities and choices are shaped by experiences of poverty, farm labor, and their small town.
Kilcoyne grounds their novel in a struggle familiar to many rural queers: affection for the sights, smells, and tastes of the land that birthed you… balanced against the knowledge of real violence, both historical and current, lingering right below the surface. While the four central characters of Wake the Bones are white, their understandings of rural whiteness aren’t glossed over or ignored as part of their intersectional identities. For example, the close third-person prose contains asides about sundown towns and the dangers to racial as well as other minorities alive and well in Dry Valley—while also highlighting the diversity of the gay bar in Cincinnati the crew travels hours to visit.
Wake the Bones deals, too, with the socioeconomic challenges that arise when a young person does try to move out of “the country.” For me, one of the best things about the novel is how rooted it is within Kentucky. I rarely get to read stories about the places where I’m from, let alone queer stories openly wrestling with those dueling urges: to leave for good, or to stay and try to build something worthwhile. Kilcoyne’s story grows from an organic understanding of the rhythms of life (and the types of conflicts!) towns like Dry Valley produce. The book holds a tenderness for working with your hands, swimming in the creeks and eating food you’ve grown or hunted—but doesn’t descend into rose-colored romance. Farm life is hard, small town Appalachia is poor and rife with backbiting gossip, and ‘going to the hospital’ means a forty-five minute ride in a truck bed.
As a gothic, of course the book contains plenty of class critiques and buried, ghastly secrets—updated for a contemporary setting. One of our first insights into Laurel is her fear of admitting to her friends that she dropped out of college, thereby dashing her dreams of doing something other than the body-wearying labor of farming tobacco. Meanwhile, Isaac desperately wants to run from their town, from his abusive father and the constant threat of homophobic violence being “one of the good ones” has so far spared him from… but Garrett, the guy he’s all tangled up with emotionally, has no desire to leave country life for a city where his accent and his lack of education would mark him a permanent outsider. While I’m all for the terrible devil of Early Farm, the haunts and folk magic, the rawhide-and-bloody-bones scariness, it’s these realistic emotional conflicts that really stuck with me.
I also appreciated that Wake the Bones is a novel for young adults that doesn’t pretend people in their late teens are the same as ten year old children. Laurel and her crew are mature and well-versed in the necessities of survival. They’ve been working fields since they were kids, their paychecks might go toward the family mortgage, and their recreational hours are often spent in the woods with jars of moonshine or driving into the city with fake I.D.s for that aforementioned gay bar. But, at the same time, they’re still growing into themselves as adults. Sometimes they make ugly mistakes, and sometimes they hurt each other. Those weird cusp years are the hardest to render honestly, but Kilcoyne has done a phenomenal job—especially in dealing with how affection and sex play out among a close-knit group of friends.
I’m rarely drawn to straight romances, but Laurel and Ricky’s relationship is compelling, in part because of the ways gender norms are dispensed with between them. Specifically, the fact that when Laurel comes home assuming she’ll end up marrying him and settling for the same life her mother and her mother’s mother had… he turns her down! And he’s fairly offended at being seen as a sort of consolation prize. Ricky loves her, but he isn’t going to be settled for; he deserves to be reciprocally cared about, for the right reasons. My heart was warmed by their roughhousing, too, the physical intimacy that comes from Laurel’s working side by side with her boys in the tobacco. The balance of affection and kinship between the four of them—before and above the romances—is just beautiful, especially given how uncommon gender-crossing friendships seem to be in fiction.
Unsurprisingly, though, I got the most mileage from Isaac and Garrett. What can I say other than, “being a gay man in rural Kentucky is a rough road?” Laurel’s got her own troubles, but her inability to understand why Isaac needs to leave highlights how even well-meaning friends can totally fail to see the dangers queer men regularly experience. Then there’s Garrett, who accepts that Isaac can’t stay with him, but also can’t see a future for himself in the city. A supernatural threat is what Isaac eventually faces, in an assault that nearly kills him, but Kilcoyne makes no bones about how it echoes the other deaths he’s imagined for himself through the years. Isaac ultimately thinks, “He’d lived like living was a choice he could make. But his body knew the truth in the grass brushing his feet. He was not meant to survive Dry Valley. Boys like him never were.”
Even just typing that line again, a shiver went from my ears to my toes. Honestly, I still haven’t settled the conflict between rural and urban queer life in my own heart, and this book spoke to that experience. The places you grow up might not be nurturing, but they do shape you; there are always sacrifices, things you cannot be or do or have depending on where you end up settling. The fact that Garrett does move with Isaac to Cincinnati after the assault—close enough to visit home, but far enough away for safety—feels like the same kind of uneasy compromise Laurel arrives at when she decides to stay in Dry Valley with Ricky after all.
There are no simple feel-good solutions to big, structural problems in Wake the Bones, that’s for sure. But, as with Laurel and Ricky, or the defeat of the devil and the ghost of Anna Early alike… the cracks left by trauma are where the flowers bloom. Decay or rot as an ever-present sign of death, but also the possibility of fresh life, echoes as a constant motif through the novel. Laurel’s taxidermy practices, her comfort giving life to corpses, are ultimately what allow her to connect with the land’s magic to bring her boyfriend back from the dead (though significantly altered, given post-resurrection he bleeds flowers instead of blood). Staying on the farm means sacrificing other futures for herself—but finally, she’s doing so on purpose and with purpose.
Wake the Bones concludes on a beat of hopeful, eager uncertainty. Every character ends up striving toward growth, toward renewal, toward joy in the aftermath of pain—and the future spreads out ahead of them. Their weird little family might be located further apart, but mutual affection and respect seem capable of holding them together despite the distance. That’s a powerful note to end on, and one that lingers with me.
Wake the Bones is published by Wednesday Books.
Lee Mandelo (he/they) is a writer, critic, and occasional editor whose fields of interest include speculative and queer fiction–especially where the two coincide. Summer Sons, their spooky gay debut novel, was recently published by Tordotcom, with other stories featuring in magazines like Uncanny and Nightmare. Aside from a brief stint overseas, Lee has spent their life ranging across Kentucky, currently living in Lexington and pursuing a PhD in Gender Studies at the University of Kentucky.