I read the conclusion of Kimi Cunningham Grant’s Fallen Mountains on coffee-stained pages, an unfortunate reminder that coffee cups within reach of a toddler are a regrettable thing to forget. The stains climbed the pages, starting low at the spine and growing upward in small mounds toward each corner like craggy hills. It was an ironic juxtaposition, as the text described characters stepping over fallen trees and forested debris—a once growing and interesting environment now leveled, the flattened landscape both backdrop and breaking point for the dramatic tale.
As a farm kid raised outside a small town, I recognized the seeming contradiction of comfortable desperation in the community portrayed, as well as the deep connection to the land, the love and loss of which begin this story.
The Hardy farm is the first property in Fallen Mountains, Pennsylvania to lease mineral rights to an oil company. The woods are timbered before the company can begin fracking, and then the typical activity ensues: trees with no timber value lay strewn on the ground “like pieces of a shipwreck,” men with out-of-state plates sleep in their trucks because the oil company is too cheap to provide temporary housing or even a portable outhouse, and busy company men look down on the local population. When Transom Shultz—the man who sold the Hardy farm’s land rights—disappears, the deal he made seems a likely motive. But though all the new faces are questionable, strangers don’t hold a candle to the rural characters who are skeptical of them.
Sheriff Redifer, or “Red,” knows that Shultz’s disappearance is more complicated than first meets the eye. There was another incident involving Shultz years ago and that incident informs every chapter of the present story. Fallen Mountains is a classic whodunit. What happened to Transom Shultz and why? Did someone come after him for selling out to the oil company? Because he betrayed his best friend? Because of his philandering relationships? Because of the bullying and terrorizing he committed in his youth? Because of his recent fight with his fiancé? There is no shortage of suspects and the book bounces between each of their perspectives.
Much More Than Land
In addition to jumping points of view, the story also moves around in nonlinear time. Grant rips apart her plot, scattering the story arc like seeds for the reader to gather and piece together. She deftly intertwines both the moments leading up to Transom’s disappearance and the investigation following it, each scene offering a few meager clues into the heart of the townspeople.
Her characters are all refreshingly complicated and surprisingly sympathetic, even the insensitive Transom. Grant takes time to give each character a full back story, with none amounting to a superfluous point of view.
Into this basin of broken people rides Transom Shultz, returning to his hometown after years away, as he was wont to do—disappearing for four or five years but always returning home eventually, a stray cat with his own wounds. This time the only person happy to see him is his best friend and surrogate brother, Chase Hardy. But even that reunion sours fast when Transom helps his friend get out of debt by purchasing Chase’s family farm. With suspicious speed, Transom turns around and begins the process of selling the mineral rights.
That land represented a lot to Chase beyond merely history and family legacy. Chase had lost a lot of people dear to him. Those woods, specifically a section he called “Church Hollow,” had been a spiritual refuge for him. When he finds it laid to waste, “completely torn up, like a battle had taken place there,” he nearly comes undone, inciting a physical confrontation with one of the workers.
That interaction is one of several Grant sprinkles into her book to hint that perhaps quiet, hardworking Chase Hardy isn’t quite as annoyingly pure as one might think. But would the loss of his land incite him enough to kill his own brother?
Of everyone in Fallen Mountains, Chase had the clearest motive. But Sheriff Red has a secret, one that’s long haunted him, and he knows that Chase isn’t the only man in Fallen Mountains with reason to get rid of Transom.
Choice and Consequence
Years ago, Transom committed a crime, one that changed his victim forever. That man, Possum Miller, is a good villain—misunderstood, a loner, the classic small town oddball. Plus, he has already served time for another violent incident. He’s more than capable of going after Transom.
But Transom wasn’t the only one who wronged Possum that night in the shale pit seventeen years ago. Red still hasn’t been able to wash away the dirt from his own hands. After living for years with the fallout from his cover up, can he bring himself to finally tell someone the truth? And if Possum has started a revenge vendetta, is Red next on his list?
Grant carefully shares the voice of her two suspects, giving both Chase and Possum just enough suspicion to convince readers in one direction only to throw them back into doubt in the next moment. And if that weren’t mysterious enough, another questionable voice appears: connected to all three young men—Transom, Chase, and Possum—is a woman named Laney. She and Transom have a history that could ruin everything just when her life finally feels like it has direction and purpose. She seems like an average Jane at first glance, but she’s better with a gun than anyone else in town, and she has a lot on the line.
Like all good mysteries, this is a story about choice and consequence. But it’s also about fate and circumstance. How much control do we really have over our situation? As you look into the lives of each character, both those who loved and hated Transom, a pattern is immediately evident: situational turmoil in each one’s past—economics, health, tragedy, childhood trauma, and more. The tension from these circumstances builds in each person, leading to a surprising conclusion that asks hard questions about issues like karma, fate, and the extent to which human suspicion over-complicates life’s natural trajectory.
The Fallen Mountain plot is complicated, the characters flawed, the sense of place strong. All essential pieces of a good novel. As you near the end and pull back the curtain, be prepared to wince a little and to ponder ideas about destiny, justice, and complicated forms of forgiveness. And don’t forget to keep an eye on any nearby cups within arm’s reach of a toddler.