"My uncle, Joel Webster, disappeared without a trace on June 1, 1949." Thus begins Vickie Phelps' novel of alienation, quest, and reconciliation. The narrator, also named Joel Webster, was born a year after the disappearance, and he knows that uncle only by stories told him by his mother. His embittered father never mentions the uncle, but heaps verbal abuse on the younger Joel in the uncle's stead. The tension increases when the younger Joel becomes a teacher rather than a farmer, and it continues until both father and mother are deceased. So at age forty, divorced and alone, the younger Joel sets out on a quest to see if the elder Joel still lives.
His quest leads him to Santa Fe, the address from which his uncle mailed occasional post cards. He finds an old Indian woman named Lila, who loved his uncle briefly before the uncle disappeared from her also. Joel receives instant hatred from the influential and treacherous Juan Hernandez—but no information about the uncle. And the tension heightens when Joel is attracted to Hernandez' granddaughter, Sierra. Nevertheless, Joel continues his quest.
Vickie Phelps develops these materials deftly, weaving the conflicts and harmonies of the different players into an interesting blend of narrative and character study. She keeps the reader wondering: Will the younger Joel manage to lay the ghosts of his troubled past? Will he find his uncle? Will he be able to resolve his double conflicts with the vindictive Hernandez? Yet she skillfully brings these disparate materials to a satisfying conclusion. The result is a novel that will be particularly pleasing to readers who enjoy character studies in depth.
Reviewed by Donn Taylor, author of Murder Mezzo Forte, Lightning on a Quiet Night, etc.