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Nothing More Dangerous
By Allen Eskens
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In a small Southern town where loyalty to family and to "your people" carries the weight of a sacred oath, defying those unspoken rules can be a deadly proposition. After fifteen years of growing up in the Ozark hills with his widowed mother, high-school freshman Boady Sanden is beyond ready to move on. He dreams of glass towers and cityscapes, driven by his desire to be anywhere other than Jessup, Missouri. The new kid at St. Ignatius High School, if he isn't being pushed around, he is being completely ignored. Even his beloved woods, his playground as a child and his sanctuary as he grew older, seem to be closing in on him, suffocating him.
Then Thomas Elgin moves in across the road, and Boady's life begins to twist and turn. Coming to know the Elgins — a black family settling into a community where notions of "us" and "them" carry the weight of history — forces Boady to rethink his understanding of the world he's taken for granted. Secrets hidden in plain sight begin to unfold: the mother who wraps herself in the loss of her husband, the neighbor who carries the wounds of a mysterious past that he holds close, the quiet boss who is fighting his own hidden battle.
But the biggest secret of all is the disappearance of Lida Poe, the African-American woman who keeps the books at the local plastics factory. Word has it that Ms. Poe left town, along with a hundred thousand dollars of company money. Although Boady has never met the missing woman, he discovers that the threads of her life are woven into the deepest fabric of his world.
As the mystery of her fate plays out, Boady begins to see the stark lines of race and class that both bind and divide this small town — and he will be forced to choose sides.
Best Book of the Year: Florida Sun-Sentinel and Library Journal
Finalist for the Minnesota Book Award
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I began this novel, Nothing More Dangerous, in 1991 as a way to explore my own failing regarding notions of prejudice and racism. The characters and story line intrigued me, and I worked on the novel for twenty years before setting it aside. It wasn’t ready, and I knew it. I then wrote five other novels, including The Life We Bury, which became my first bestseller. My experience in writing those novels led me back to Nothing More Dangerous with renewed focus and enthusiasm. I am pleased that this novel is finally ready, and I hope you enjoy it.
I WAS FIFTEEN YEARS OLD THE DAY I LEARNED THAT MS. LIDA POE had gone missing. Her name meant nothing to me at the time, but I repeated it under my breath just for the way it felt on my tongue. Lida Poe—it sounded whimsical yet stern, the kind of name that should belong to a saloon keeper or stunt pilot—not someone who scribbled numbers at a plastics factory. Her disappearance was a topic of discussion in my Current Events class that late-spring morning, and would have soon been lost to my many other distractions had everything else not gone to hell that day.
I never really understood the point of that Current Events class. It went like this: Mrs. Shaw had us read that day’s newspaper for the first half of the hour—keeping us busy while she scrolled through her gossip magazines. Then she used the second half of the hour to discuss what we’d read, but those discussions never seemed to dig much past the surface, using a hoe when what you really needed was a shovel. For example, I knew that a guy named Jimmy Carter won a bunch of primaries, surprising everybody, and I knew that President Ford had his hands full trying to beat out an actor named Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, but what any of it had to do with the price of a turnip down at the IGA I couldn’t tell you.
Ms. Poe wasn’t the headline that day. In fact, her story didn’t show up until page three. The headline, and most of the front page, was devoted to the American Freedom Train, or what we locals called the Bicentennial Train, which stopped in Jessup earlier that week, inviting students from every corner of Caulfield County to walk in lockstep through a celebration of the nation’s two hundredth birthday. It was the biggest thing to hit Jessup, Missouri, since the Apollo 11 capsule drove through on the back of a flatbed tractor-trailer.
Because I had already experienced the Freedom Train, I saw no need to read about it all over again, so I turned my attention to the open window next to me and let my thoughts drift in the breeze. Soon I found myself sitting in the crux of my favorite oak tree, watching the afternoon sun ripple across the surface of Dixon’s pond, the smell of mud and water in my nose, the feel of tree bark under my bare feet. I could hear the zip of dragonflies and the rustle of an old turtle in the reeds. A sense of relaxation washed over me as I settled into my daydream—the only part of school that I found the least bit tolerable.
I would have stayed in that lull until the bell rang had I not been pulled back to the classroom by the sarcasm in Mrs. Shaw’s voice when the discussion turned to the missing woman. The way Mrs. Shaw went on you’d think that Lida Poe spent her evenings dancing naked in her front yard under the glow of a red porch light. “Lida Poe,” Mrs. Shaw said, “was thirty-five, colored, and a…divorcée”—that last word dripping with such a thick tang of ruination that you were just sure that all of Ms. Poe’s hardships could be traced back to that one original sin.
The article didn’t mention that Ms. Poe was a divorcée. Mrs. Shaw added that tidbit herself. And her tone suggested that she knew Lida Poe on a personal level—or more likely, she knew someone who knew someone who heard something. Back then, Jessup was big enough that you passed strangers on the street every day, but at the same time, if someone went missing, everybody seemed to know a little something about it.
The newspaper article pointed out that Poe worked in the purchasing department at Ryke Manufacturing, the largest employer in Jessup. Ryke molded plastics for use in everything from sunglasses to car dashboards. Those plastic phones that hung on everyone’s wall, the ones with the long cord that came in every color of the rainbow, they all started out there in Jessup, Missouri. Shaw had once mentioned that her husband worked at Ryke, which might have explained the connection. Whatever the reason, Mrs. Shaw didn’t much care for the missing woman.
The article gave little information as to why Ms. Lida Poe went missing. It merely reported that someone stopped by her house and found her gone. It had been two weeks, and no one had seen hide nor hair of the woman. Personally, I didn’t find it hard to believe that someone had up and left Jessup; what baffled me was why more people didn’t do it.
I looked out the window again and tried to get back to Dixon’s pond, hoping to stay there until the bell rang. I conjured up bits and pieces of the daydream, but they came and went like a candle that just wouldn’t stay lit. Mrs. Shaw had moved on to another article, but something about Lida Poe’s story kept me away from my daydream. I remember thinking that when the time came for me to run away from Jessup, I would be sure to leave a note. I didn’t want students in some Current Events class reading about me going missing—not that they would have cared.
When the bell rang, kids poured out of their classrooms with the force of a river breaking through its levee. I headed down the main stairs, which opened into a hallway lined with mildew-green lockers, where I dumped my morning books into my locker, grabbed a yellow notebook, and headed to the cafeteria for lunch.
I hated the lunch hour.
Unlike most kids, I didn’t mind the food. I mean, how bad can you screw up a hot dog? No, I hated lunch because I had no regular place to sit. Cafeteria politics dictated that I wait until the various cliques settled into their seats before I claimed a chair, my daily reminder of just how much of an outsider I remained after almost a full year at St. Ignatius Catholic High School. I told my mother that I had been making friends at my new school—I didn’t want her to worry—but I think she knew that I made it all up, because she never asked for their names, and I never offered them.
Up until the end of eighth grade, I had attended a small country school in Dry Creek, a town a little closer to my home out in the woods. That all changed when I decided to take up smoking. Back then, the IGA sold cigarettes in the checkout lane, right next to the candy bars and tabloid magazines. It was easy to take a pack. I just stood with my back to the rack and slipped the smokes into my pocket. Once I got out of the store, I moved them into my sock so that my mom wouldn’t see them.
At home, after I helped Mom carry in the groceries, I ran out to my tree at the edge of Dixon’s pond, climbed onto my favorite limb, and lit my first cigarette. I can’t say that I particularly liked the experience; truth be told, I felt like I coughed up half a lung that day.
I took up smoking to try to fit in with a loose collection of misfits from Dry Creek who smoked cigarettes after school and called themselves the Rowdies. Smoking was kind of like their secret handshake; it made them different from other kids, and that difference gave them something they could share. Theirs was a least-common-denominator basis for friendship, and I thought that by learning to smoke I could be one of them.
But just as I was making inroads with the group, we got busted. One of the teachers spotted us sneaking down to the train trestle during recess. When the dust of that particular flap settled, my mother decided to enroll me at St. Ignatius in the fall instead of Jessup High, where the rest of those guys went. As far as I knew, I wasn’t even Catholic before that. St. Ignatius had no rowdies, at least not the type that I knew in Dry Creek. The rowdies at St. Ignatius were dentists’ and bankers’ sons who dressed sharp, drove jacked-up trucks and Camaros, and beat up freshmen like me for fun.
I hated St. Ignatius.
I got to the cafeteria that day, waited in line, and bought my lunch: two hot dogs, two milks, and a bag of chips, the same lunch I ate every day. I grabbed an empty chair at the end of a row of tables and opened my yellow notebook, flipping past page after page of rock band logos that I had drawn, or attempted to draw. I had no talent—not even a little bit—but drawing gave me something to do so that I didn’t have to stare at the empty chair across from me for an hour. I drew a lot of KISS and Lynyrd Skynyrd stuff, but that day I worked to perfect the wings of my Aerosmith logo. That’s what I was doing when I heard Lida Poe’s name again.
I hadn’t noticed, but a group of seniors had taken seats at the table behind me—Jarvis Halcomb and his boys, Beef and Bob. Beef and Bob weren’t related, but because they shared the letter B as their first initial, most underclassmen took to calling them the Boob Brothers, a silly alliteration born of adolescent swagger—a name that could be whispered from a distance but never spoken loud enough for one of them to hear it.
You rarely saw Jarvis without the Boob Brothers at his side, laughing at his jokes and pretty much agreeing with anything he said; such was the privilege afforded those deemed popular. Jarvis had been the first wrestler from St. Ignatius to go to the state tournament in over a decade, and he had been voted prom king even though most of the kids in my class thought he was a jerk. And he drove a four-wheel-drive truck that he’d jacked up so high that he had to weld an extra step below his running boards so he could climb up into the cab.
I’m pretty sure Jarvis Halcomb had no idea that I existed before that day—though I made sure to fix that. I hadn’t planned on butting in on their business, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping once I heard Jarvis mention the name Lida Poe.
“We just have to wait until this whole thing with Lida Poe blows over,” Jarvis said to the Boobs.
Beef spoke. “You said your old man would hire me. I told Mom I got a job already.”
“He’ll hire you. We just have to wait a bit. The jackasses up in Minneapolis are sendin’ down some guy to look into what happened to Poe. Dad can’t do nothin’ till he’s gone.”
“But your dad’s the boss,” Beef said. “Why can’t he do what he wants?”
“Dad’s only the boss here in Jessup,” Jarvis said. “They all gotta answer to the head office in Minneapolis. And what’s worse, the guy they’re sendin’ down…he’s a coon.”
“Bullshit,” Beef said.
“As God is my witness, that’s what Dad said.”
Bob said, “Every time you turn around there’s another one getting moved up the ladder for no good reason. It ain’t right.”
“There’s a reckonin’ on the way,” Jarvis said. “That’s for damn sure.”
“Maybe we should do some reckonin’ of our own,” Bob said. “Maybe take a drive through Goat Hill tonight.”
Beef said, “I don’t know, boys.”
“Gonna chicken out again?” Bob asked.
“It ain’t chickenin’ out. I just don’t see the point of it.”
“The point of it is, we’re sendin’ a message,” Bob said.
“We don’t need to go to Goat Hill to send a message,” Jarvis said. “We can do that right here. Where’s that little black girl sittin’?”
I knew who they were talking about. A freshman, like me, she too ate her lunches alone, being the only black kid in the whole school. She sat next to me in my history class, although I don’t recall ever talking to her. Her name was Diana and her mother worked in the cafeteria, which gave Diana free tuition—at least that’s what I’d heard—which made sense, because why else would someone like her go to St. Ignatius?
“How ’bout we just eat in peace,” Beef said.
“God, Beef, stop bein’ such a wuss,” Jarvis said. “We ain’t gonna hit her or nothin’.”
“Whatcha gonna do?” Bob asked.
“I ain’t doin’ nothin’—you are. You’re gonna…you’re gonna take my puddin’ and dump it on her. Pretend it’s an accident.”
“Come on, Jarvis,” Beef said. “Numb-nuts here might take you serious.”
“I am serious,” Jarvis said. “Bob talks big, but I wanna see if he’s got any grit to him.”
“Why me? It’s your idea.”
“Bob, are you suggesting that I’m not the kind of guy that would do what needs doin’?” A low snarl had found its way into Jarvis’s voice and seemed to turn the room cold. “Is that what you’re sayin’, Bob? Cuz I think you know better.”
“No, I ain’t sayin’ that.” I could hear backtracking in Bob’s tone as he answered.
Jarvis continued, “Between the two of us, you’re the one that still has somethin’ to prove.”
I peeked over my shoulder, pretending to look at the clock on the wall, and saw Jarvis slide a bowl of chocolate pudding onto the tray in front of Bob. Beef stared at his lunch tray lightly shaking his head.
As the plot coiled up behind me, I scanned the lunchroom and spotted the monitors, Brother Evan and Brother Bart, lost in a conversation on the far side of the room. I thought about running over and alerting them to Jarvis’s scheme, but by the time I’d get there, it would be too late. All I’d be doing is snitching after the fact, doing no good for either Diana or myself.
Like most things Catholic, the dress code at St. Ignatius favored us boys over the girls. We were allowed to wear knit pants and shirts of any color, as long as the shirt had a collar. The girls, on the other hand, could only wear white blouses with either navy blue pants or navy blue skirts, hemmed at the knee of course. I looked at Diana and pictured the mess of pudding on her nice white blouse, and I felt bad for her.
“No problem,” Bob said.
I tucked my elbows into my ribs, shrinking in my seat as I tried to convince myself that this wasn’t my fight. I had no part in it. I was a freshman—a weak and bony one at that, and they were seniors. Freshmen don’t stick their noses into such places or they’d get those noses broken. If anything, Brothers Bart and Evan were at fault for what was about to happen. They were supposed to be watching out for problems like this, not gabbing away. The blame lay with them, not me.
Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t talk myself into minding my own business. I looked at the unfolding situation and could see only one option, and if I’d had more time to think about it, I’m sure that I would have chickened out.
I heard the squeak of Bob’s chair as he stood up.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Those words clanged in my brain.
Bob began walking, coming from behind me and to my right.
As he passed, I swung my foot out, catching his left heel and sending that foot into the back of his right knee.
Bob splayed out as he crashed to the floor, his tray and flatware slamming into the tile with a clamor that echoed off the walls—a gong to focus all eyes on Bob’s humiliation.
I stopped breathing. What had I done?
Bob turned to look at me, rage boiling red on his face, a cow-pie of pudding smeared across his cheek and on his shirt. It’s possible that Brothers Evan and Bart might have been able to break up the fight before Beef and Bob and Jarvis did too much damage to me, but I didn’t stick around to see. I grabbed my yellow notebook and ran.
“The little puke tripped me!” Bob shouted.
There seemed to be a moment of confusion for Jarvis and Beef, because they didn’t grab me as I shot past them. When Bob yelled a second time, he just said, “Get him!”
I had gone out for track that year—my mom’s suggestion—the idea being that I might be able to survive St. Ignatius if I had some kind of extracurricular hobby to distract me. But I only lasted one day. It wasn’t that I couldn’t run fast; I could. No, I dropped out of track because Brock Nance, the Jarvis Halcomb of my grade, and his little band of suck-ups made fun of me for wearing black socks with my gym clothes instead of the knee-high white socks like everyone else had on. They called me Boady Bumpkin, a name I didn’t want catching on, so I quit going to track. Besides, I didn’t need to race other boys to know that I was fast.
The cafeteria had a courtyard where kids could eat outside. I made it halfway across that space, heading for grass and the path around the back side of the gymnasium, before Jarvis and Beef got out of their chairs. I crossed the point of no return before I realized my mistake; I’d turned right when I should have turned left. Left would have taken me to the main part of the school, where there’d be windows and teachers and help. The gym had no windows. If Jarvis caught me back there, no one would hear my screams. There’d be no rescue.
I kicked it up a gear, my feet clapping hard on the packed dirt of the path. I glanced back to see Jarvis gaining. Beef, our school’s top heavyweight wrestler and offensive tackle, lagged well back, although he had impressive speed for a big guy. Straight ahead of me lay an open field where the marching band usually practiced. If I ran out there, I’d be tackled like a baby wildebeest. My only hope was to boomerang around the gym and try to make it back to the front of the school, maybe catch the eye of a teacher before Jarvis caught me.
My fingers scraped along the rough brick as I cut close to the building to make my first turn. I could feel my adrenaline wearing off and fear taking its place. Faster. I had to run faster. Forget about pacing myself—it made no sense to save fuel for later.
As I approached the next corner, I heard Jarvis’s steps pounding closer. Again I looked back to see that Jarvis had gained another thirty feet on me. I wouldn’t be able to make it to the front of the school before he caught me.
I thought about shooting left and heading for the student parking lot, where I could dodge around cars until they gave up, but with two of them and only one of me, they’d be able to trap me. I was almost out of ideas when I saw the back door of the cafeteria’s kitchen. Students weren’t allowed in there, but I hit that door anyway.
A stocky woman, standing at a sink hosing off a stack of plastic trays, saw me stumble in, and her face took on a perplexed expression. I bent down, hands on my knees, and gulped in big chunks of air, doing my best not to puke. I expected a hassle, but the woman made no move to shoo me out of her kitchen.
Peering over a stack of dirty pans, I saw that both Brother Bart and Brother Evan had left their post, probably making their way toward the back side of the gym, their keen senses having finally figured out that something was amiss. I thought about slipping back into the cafeteria, but saw Bob leaning against a table, wiping pudding off his shirt with a stack of napkins. With no teachers in the room, I couldn’t go there.
Then I heard the beat of Jarvis’s shoes coming to a stop outside, followed a few seconds later by Beef, so out of breath that his wheezing penetrated the door. The woman at the sink pointed to an empty space below one of the countertops. She nodded to tell me to hide there, so I did.
No sooner did I get my feet tucked up under me than Jarvis pulled the kitchen door open. From my hiding spot, I could see the woman’s shoes, brown leather with small holes in the toes, as she scurried to intercept my pursuers. “Students ain’t allowed in the kitchen,” she said.
“We’re lookin’ for someone,” Jarvis said. “We think he might be in there.”
“Students ain’t allowed in the kitchen,” she repeated, giving a punch to each word.
“We just wanna take a quick look,” Jarvis said. “It won’t take a second.”
I could see Jarvis attempting to wedge his way past the woman, and I watched her feet move to block him.
“Son, if you don’t get outta my kitchen right now, I’ll get one of the brothers to haul ya out.”
“Boys, what seems to be the problem here?” It was Brother Bart’s voice, deep and resonant, the kind of voice that belonged on the radio or doing movie trailers. I watched Jarvis back out of the kitchen, the door closing behind him.
A few seconds later the woman walked to where I hid and bent down so I could see her face. “You can come out now.”
I wiggled my way out of the cubbyhole.
“What’s your name, son?”
I hesitated, and then said, “Boady Sanden.”
“Well, Boady Sanden, I’m Mrs. Lathem, and this is my kitchen. So you wanna tell me why you’re pickin’ fights you can’t win? You got rocks in that head of yours or somethin’?”
“I saw you trip that big fella. What in the Sam Hill were you thinkin’?”
“He was gonna dump puddin’ on this girl named Diana and I—”
“Diana Jackson? Evelyn’s girl?”
“I guess.” I brushed some dirt and an old french fry off my pants.
“Principal Rutgers is gonna hear about this,” she said.
“No. Please. I don’t wanna make a big deal of it. I gotta go to school here, and I don’t need people callin’ me a snitch. It’s over. I just wanna go to class and forget about it.”
The woman chewed on the inside of her cheek for a bit, then said, “Okay. I won’t tell if that’s what you want, but you’d better stay here until the bell rings. It ain’t gonna be safe out there.”
“Mind you, this little tussle ain’t over for them, not by a long shot. So you best grow a pair of eyes in the back of your head.”
THAT FRACAS WITH THE PUDDING HAPPENED ON A FRIDAY. I remember because having dodged Jarvis and the Boob Brothers for the last three class periods, I figured I’d have all weekend to come up with a plan to steer clear of them for the remaining few weeks of my miserable freshman year. But sometimes fate has a way of putting your plans—even something as life-and-death important as getting thrashed by seniors—on the back burner.
The school bus dropped me off at the top of my dead-end gravel road, and as it pulled away, the bus kicked up a cloud of exhaust and limestone dust that drifted my way. I stood motionless, my eyes closed, my breath held, until the spring breeze cleared the offending cloud. When I opened my eyes again, Frog Hollow Road—my road—snaked its way along the side of a modest Ozark ridge, dipping and twisting like a discarded ribbon.
I gripped my gym bag handle with both hands, spun in a circle the way I’d seen Olympic hammer throwers do, and heaved the bag—with my algebra and Spanish textbooks inside—as far down the road as I could, watching it tumble and skid to a stop in the loose gravel. I was on the cusp of flunking both classes, and found the books themselves an easier target for my frustration than, say, my reluctance to crack them open.
I shuffled to the side of the road and climbed atop an old, cedar corner post, a log almost as big around as me, which didn’t mean much since I was a fairly skinny kid at fifteen. I stood on that pedestal, my size-tens overlapping its flat crown, and my thin frame, all five-eight of it, stretching up like an extension of the post itself. Out in front of me, the Ozark hills rolled along like a lumpy quilt on an unmade bed, the land all wrinkled and twisted like God had casually dropped it there as he passed by. I traced the long meandering line of the valley in front of me until my eyes came to rest on the hazy outline of a water tower eight miles away, proof of civilization beyond my woods.
- "A stunning small-town mystery.... Eskens clearly has an affinity for clever boys like Boady and Thomas; but he also has lovely visions of the mighty trees and secret swimming holes that make them long for summer -- and mysteries to solve."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
- "Nothing More Dangerous works well as a mystery, a dissection of hatred and racial prejudice, and a coming-of-age novel. . . . Eskens gracefully moves the novel through the little moments that help to shape people and see the world with a different attitude."—Oline H. Cogdill, Associated Press
- "The story is gripping. . . . The characters are intriguing. . . . Eskens weaves a fine mystery that involves layers of racial introspection. . . . Eskens tells us in an author's note that he started this book in 1991 and kept putting it away, never quite feeling it was ready. He can proudly pronounce it ready now."—Ginny Greene, Minneapolis Star Tribune
- "Allen Eskens hits it out of the park with his new novel.... More relevant than ever in this divided country... This is a story of hope through an act of love.... It would be a fine supplementary text for high schoolers, especially the discussions of prejudice and where it comes from."—Mary Ann Grossman, Pioneer Press
- "Mystery Pick of the Month: This powerful, unforgettable crime novel is a coming-of-age book to rival some of the best, such as William Kent Krueger's Ordinary Grace or Larry Watson's Montana 1948.... This timely stand-alone is a must-read for followers of the best in crime fiction."—Library Journal (starred review)
- "Allen Eskens doesn't just tap into the experience of growing up in a rural Southern town; Nothing More Dangerous dissects the inner life of a teen forced to confront prejudice and persecution.... Eskens has the skill to make readers cry... and then cheer."—Shelf Awareness
- "Magnificent... Nothing More Dangerous is the next best thing to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.... Setting, plot, and characterization are masterfully woven together to create a tapestry of a small town as a tinderbox of prejudice, fear, friendship, and dark secrets." —New York Journal of Books
- "Eskens does an excellent job of weaving [the] disparate threads together into a fine blend of mystery and coming-of-age novel. The setting is spot-on, the characters are empathetic and well realized, and the plot is clever and compelling, building suspense until a harrowing denouement reveals all."—Booklist
- "Both heartwarming and hard-nosed, Nothing More Dangerous is a coming-of-age page-turner that probes the dark heart of small towns and the resilient strength that keeps families together."—Thomas Mullen, author of Darktown
- On Sale
- Nov 3, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Mulholland Books