Book Review: The Evening Road

The powerful new novel fictionalizes one of Indiana’s ugliest moments.
Laird Hunt, an award-winning novelist and professor, spent much of his childhood abroad. But at 13, he moved to his family’s farm, 40 miles north of Indianapolis, to live with his grandmother. “I went from London to a corn and soybean farm in rural Indiana,” he says. “It was a bit of a system shock.”
Hunt ended up loving Indiana. He detasseled corn in the summer, starred on the high school football team, and listened to his grandma recount slivers of family lore. In fact, Indiana became a muse he has returned to in book after book. “My imagination keeps going back to that 80-acre farm,” he says, “to the years I spent there and the stories my grandmother told me.”
That’s certainly true of his latest novel, The Evening Road, which hits shelves this month. It follows two smart and strong Hoosier women—women like his grandmother—and their reactions to a brutal lynching. The hanging was clearly inspired by the infamous one in Marion in 1930. But Hunt has set The Evening Road in a parallel history. Instead of Marion, there’s the town of Marvel. Instead of that era’s many racial slurs, black people are called “cornflowers.”
This simple linguistic trick is Hunt at his best. In early drafts, he used history’s ugly terminology. But he found the language trapped him. “Those words can become invisible if you use them often enough in a book or in life,” he says. He started using “cornflower” as a bleak placeholder, but ultimately realized he needed to leave it in. The strangeness of the word forces readers to pause—to consider the hate behind it, but also the casualness with which it was used. It provides an ahistorical glimpse of what history felt like, captured in a way only fiction can.
With a plot that centers on the day of the lynching and lots of sharp dialogue, the novel moves briskly. In addition to his dual heroines, Hunt has created a roster of wonderful supporting characters, including a portly politician who talks about “the great Governor in the sky” and a woman who, after a terrible head injury, now speaks with angels, though only before breakfast. Each of these characters underlines the novel’s big theme: the way humans will bend the rules, especially their own, based on the audience and expectations around them.
The Evening Road is simultaneously dreamy and depressing. And in at least two ways, Indiana serves as its perfect setting. To so many outsiders, it’s a blank slate, or at least a blank state. (Hunt had to keep reminding his British publisher that Indiana isn’t actually in the South.) But it’s also a place that has shaped the author. He still visits the old farm once a year. “I like going in the summer when it’s hot and humid,” he says. “That sense of return is really important to me.”