In 1924, an orphan train passes through the Midwest, and two teenagers, seeking a new life, find nothing but hardship when taken in to live on a farm in Michigan. Mercy, a teenage girl of mixed race, and a boy nicknamed Rope, who lost fingers in a factory accident, become virtual prisoners of Harlan and Estelle Nau, whose children died during the Spanish flu epidemic. After facing abuse, Mercy and Rope flee, making an arduous journey into sparsely populated northern Michigan, where Mercy believes she will find her aunt. After Harlan is found murdered on his farm, police captain Jim Kincaid pursues Mercy and Rope to the cold, barren villages on the Mackinac Straits, but his efforts are complicated by the reemergent Ku Klux Klan, which has formed a coalition with the police deputy Milt Waters and the Dingley brothers, who run a local bootleg operation. Resolute and intrepid, Mercy and Rope develop a bond of mutual trust that helps them navigate a stark American landscape shaped by prejudice, hypocrisy, and fear.
John Smolens has published twelve works of fiction, eleven novels, and a collection of short stories. Two of his recent novels, Wolf’s Mouth and Day of Days, have been selected as Library of Michigan Notable Books. In 2010, he was the recipient of the Michigan Author Award from the Michigan Library Association. He lives in Marquette, Michigan.
By all means, read John Smolens’s terrific new novel for the exciting, suspenseful story it is—a pair of orphans are on the run from forces both good and evil, their escape and pursuit played out in the often-treacherous wintry landscape of northern Michigan. But don’t be surprised to find that as you turn the pages you’re also involved in an American morality tale, in which the best of this country’s virtues—a sense of fairness, decency, and tolerance—are in deadly conflict with its worst qualities—bigotry, fanaticism, and hate. A Cold, Hard Prayer is a full, rich narrative and rewarding on many levels.
—Larry Watson, author of Montana 1948, Justice, and Let Him Go, now a major motion picture