Big Lies in a Small Town

Written by Diane Chamberlain
Review by Ellen Keith

In 2018, North Carolina inmate Morgan Christopher receives an unexpected offer: The late African American artist Jesse Jameson Williams has made a provision in his will for her to restore a mural from 1940. She’ll get released from prison and be given a $50,000 fee, but she has two months to finish the work—and in college, Morgan studied art, not art restoration. Nonetheless, freedom is too tempting, especially as she took the fall for her law-school bound boyfriend in a drunk-driving case.

Chamberlain alternates Morgan’s story with that of Anna Dale, the artist chosen in 1940 to paint a government-sponsored mural in Edenton, North Carolina. Anna is from New Jersey and recently lost her manic-depressive mother to suicide. Further, she is naturally met with suspicion and resentment in Edenton, especially from their hometown artist.

Morgan’s discoveries about Anna’s canvas are artfully interspersed with Anna’s experiences in Edenton that led to the condition the mural is in now. It’s not a spoiler to say that one of Anna’s high school helpers is the teenage Jesse Jameson Williams, and people in town frown on her contact with a young African American man.

Chamberlain has written a book that I could not put down. Contrasting Anna’s increasingly unsettling tale with Morgan’s increasingly hopeful one propels the narrative. Morgan’s post-prison life isn’t rosy, but she finds purpose in restoring the canvas and making better choices than the one that brought about her incarceration. The characters are fully formed, imperfect, and interesting; Jesse’s daughter, Lisa, is especially poignant. With books I love, I sometimes feel inadequate to the challenge of articulating how wonderful they are. On behalf of Morgan’s and Anna’s stories, read this book!