The setting of this book is small-town Sparta, located in upstate eastern New York. A terrible thing has taken place; it is referred to in the book as "the trouble". The book begins with the tale of the trouble told by 13-year-old Krista Diehl. The trouble begins when a beautiful, married local woman, Zoe Kruller, is found beaten and strangled to death in her bed. She had left her husband, Delray, a half-blooded Seneca, and her son, Aaron, a 14-year-old quarter-blooded Seneca, to build up her singing career. She sings with her band, Black River Breakdown. "Little Bird of Heaven" is one of the songs the band has made popular with the locals singing at Chautauqua Park on summer evenings.
Krista's father, Eddy Diehl, was having an affair with Zoe and is one of two prime suspects in her murder. Eddy disavowed any knowledge of Zoe beyond his contact with her as a clerk at Honeystone's Dairy, where he would take Krista and her brother Ben to for ice cream on Sundays. The police determined this not to be true. Since Eddy lied about knowing Zoe outside of Honeystone's, the police figured he may be lying about not killing her as well. This resulted in a legal separation with his wife, Lucille, and a no-contact restraining order against him involving Krista, Ben, Lucille and the property the house he built for his family sits on. Krista sneaks out with her father for visits, much to her mother's consternation. This drives a wedge between Krista and Lucille, but strengthens the bond with her father.
Zoe's body was discovered by her son, Aaron. He is an angry child, especially since Zoe had left them months before to live with her roommate, Jacky DeLucca. Seneca Indians are known for their height and strength, and Aaron is no exception. Most teachers and fellow students fear him. There is little interest in educating anyone of Seneca blood beyond the age of 16, as most of those students are expected to drop out then and live life out on the reservation. The book does an excellent job of describing the prejudice, fear and cruelty that exists amongst all teenagers, but especially so in small-town Sparta. Aaron and Ben are in the same grade when Zoe dies, and Aaron takes after Ben physically on a few occasions because of Eddy's implication in Zoe's death. Krista harbors a secret crush on Aaron from afar, even going so far as to play basketball after school with girls of Seneca blood who are two years older than the slight, blond-haired Krista.
Joyce Carol Oates spins a gripping tale of this unique set of circumstances from the eyes of both Krista and Aaron. Krista eventually gets herself into a life-threatening situation in which Aaron saves her life, proving that deep down Aaron does have positive feelings and is capable of caring about others, even daughters of men accused of killing his mother.
The other suspect is Aaron's father, Delray. Delray owns an auto repair shop and spends his time drinking at bars when not at work. It is not unusual for father and son to go many days without seeing each other. Aaron was not aware of whether or not his father was home on the night Zoe died, but provides the police with an alibi anyway, as he is positive that his father isn't the killer. Delray is known for his temper, fighting, alcoholism and beating up Zoe on previous occasions. Eventually two camps develop in town; the people who think Eddy killed Zoe and the people who think Delray killed Zoe.
The author treats us to a splendid view of what life is like in a small town and what suspicion, prejudice and gossip can do to children affected by their parents' behavior. Zoe is not a saint herself, and some in town even feel she got what she deserved. Some will be shocked at the scenes describing domestic abuse and the abuse Krista suffers at the hands of her older, Native American classmates. Aaron is not immune to his temper either, and the situation he helps Krista out of delivers a scene of shocking violence perpetrated by Aaron against Krista. It seemed an unlikely backdrop for a developing romance, and the feminist in me wanted to shout at Krista regarding the violence. However, when viewed from the perspective that Krista is the daughter of his mother's murderer, it seems to fit.
I couldn't put this book down until I was finished. After high school, from which Aaron is expelled, Krista grows up and she and Aaron don't see each other again for seventeen years. They are summoned to the bedside of Jacky DeLucca, who wishes to tell them both what she knows of her roommate, Zoe Kruller, and her final day on the planet.
The emotional connection between Aaron and Krista is well made from Krista's point of view, but not so much from Aaron's. I found little to convince me that Aaron had any kind feelings towards Krista at all, let alone romantic ones. After I was finished with the story from Aaron's point of view, I found it likely that he had killed his own mother, whom he called "Zoe" instead of "Mom", due to his disgust at her lifestyle and the shame she had brought upon him and Delray.
I did not like the ending at all. I felt as if the author was hurriedly trying to wrap up all the loose ends presented in the previous 384 pages in the remaining 58 pages and it didn't satisfy me. There was a lot of build-up, but when I finally read it, I found the ending as flat as a day-old Diet Pepsi in my car. However, I would recommend this book and I will read more of this author's work.