Like many suspense novels, The Weight of Blood starts with a body and a mystery. Buddy Snell, a photographer for the Ozark County paper, is looking for anything interesting to put on his front page when he discovers the dismembered remains of Cheri Stoddard in the hollow of a tree across from the small town’s general store. The discovery sends Lucy Dane, Cheri’s only friend, searching for clues to explain the murder. Unlike her friends and neighbors, Lucy refuses to assume that her friend’s death came at the hands of an unknown outsider, but Lucy does not expect the trail of clues to lead her closer and closer to home.
We soon learn that Lucy’s own mother, Lila, met a similarly mysterious end twenty years earlier, and as Lucy delves deeper into the troubling history of Cheri’s disappearance and death, she begins to uncover more than she wants to know about her own family. Just as Cheri’s severed head was first found tangled in tree roots, Lucy finds herself tangled in the complex roots of her family tree, where she must weigh loyalty to family against her own innate moral code.
Laura McHugh’s debut is a potboiler of a novel, confronting the long-hidden economy of sex trafficking in current day America. McHugh does not flinch as she writes her way into this world. Instead she levels a direct gaze on the scandalous treatment of young women throughout this country—and levels our gaze along with her own.
The plot of McHugh’s novel was inspired by a true story in her hometown of Lebanon, Missouri, where a man was convicted of torturing a mentally impaired young woman whom he had coerced into being a sex slave. The national statistics show that the scope of the problem spreads far larger. Shared Hope International reports that human trafficking has become a $9.8-billion-per-year industry in the United States, with the sex trade accounting for a significant part of that economy. According to Soroptimist, “One overriding factor in the proliferation of trafficking is the fundamental belief that the lives of women and girls are expendable. In societies where women and girls are undervalued or not valued at all, women are at greater risk for being abused, trafficked, and coerced into sex slavery.”
In The Weight of Blood, McHugh shows us the disturbing depth of this belief in female expendability as the disappearances of girls from poor, depressed households repeatedly go under-investigated. Even the girls’ mothers seem unconcerned, believing their daughters to have “run off” of their own free will. The novel’s grisly opening gains added significance as we come to understand that, even when she was alive, Cheri was never seen as anything more than a body. With so few of her neighbors and none of her family invested in her safety or wellbeing, Cheri’s living body was put to work, further compromising her value as a person at the same time that the value of her female body was exploited.
McHugh explores this core theme from a number of viewpoints. In the opening chapters, she alternates between the present day first-person narrative of Lucy and the twenty-years-earlier first-person narrative of her mother, Lila. By doing so, she puts us directly in the mind of one of the trafficked girls. In the second and third sections of the novel, McHugh further extends the number of viewpoints, rotating third-person perspectives between several different townspeople as the plot grows more complex. With this narrative strategy, McHugh is able to develop startling sympathies with characters who might be easily written off, ranging from a small-time local drug dealer to the head of the trafficking ring itself.
Balancing this tragedy and violence, McHugh also shows us the love and kindness for which small towns are famous. The character of Birdie, Lucy’s elderly neighbor and unofficial grandmother-figure, is particularly wonderful. Like the balms Birdie creates to heal the sick and injured, her presence acts as a powerful antidote, and though she is not enough to heal the darkness infecting the area, she reminds us of the good that comes from seeing past surface prejudices and seeking out the humanity of neighbors and strangers alike.
Its publishers have marketed The Weight of Blood as a novel for fans of Gillian Flynn and Daniel Woodrell. Neither comparison is completely fair. McHugh’s novel is smarter than Flynn’s mindless and misogynistic Gone Girl. Its plot is more plausible and compelling. But McHugh is not quite able to achieve the profound lyricism or the deep sense of place that made Winter’s Bone so riveting. The stylistic risk she takes by shifting points of view throughout the novel is not always justified, which creates unintended moments of confusion and disorientation. In particular, the voices of Lucy and Lila could be better differentiated. Too often they seem like the same character in different plot lines rather than being distinct individuals with unique histories and personalities. Ultimately, the idea of the “weight of blood” becomes less complicated as we learn more about the novel’s villain, and thus the novel’s conclusion is less fraught than its beginning.
Those quibbles aside, McHugh has crafted one hell of a first novel, boldly taking on an issue that is far too often and easily ignored. In a small town like Henbane, where the townspeople know one another intimately, everyone is culpable; but as the sex trafficking network reveals its extent far beyond the county lines, the novel suggests that the blame for this widespread tragedy reaches across the country and into our own living rooms. In fact, perhaps more disturbing than the plot itself is the number of reader reviews questioning whether such stories could happen in the United States. But as those comments are countered with the news stories that confirm the prevalence of sex trafficking, it appears McHugh’s novel has prompted a long overdue discussion. While her novel does not overtly call its readers to action, the narrative of missing women suggests that we must pay attention to the neglected girls around us all. Ultimately The Weight of Blood succeeds not only in being a page-turner but also in shining stark light on the humanity and depravity that coexist in the most unexpected corners of our country.