'Tumbleweeds' focuses on relationships of three hapless souls


I love it when a book starts like this: "The call he'd been expecting for twenty-two years came at midnight when he was working late at his desk. … The name of the caller appeared in the identification screen, and his heart did a flip-flop."

Middle-of-the-night phone calls from people you haven't heard from in nearly a quarter of a century almost always bode well, at least if you're in the hands of a talented author.

In this case, you certainly are.

Leila Meacham hit the book scene in a big way with 2010's multigenerational saga Roses, set in east Texas. As with that book, her follow-up, Tumbleweeds, centers on the life of a young woman and those who love her.

Here, the action is set around the fictitious Panhandle town of Kersey, where life and love revolve around high-school football. That sounds a bit like Friday Night Lights, but Tumbleweeds keeps the football mostly in the background, focusing more on the relationships among the three main characters.

The book begins in 1979 with orphaned 11-year-old Catherine Ann Benson moving to Kersey from California to live with her grandmother, Emma. No fool, Emma realizes that Cathy's transition into the tight-knit local school will be tough, so she calls upon sixth-grade hotshots Trey Don Hall and John Caldwell to take the girl under their protective wings. With their help, she grows up excelling both academically and socially, utterly adored by the two boys.

Trey Don and John are also orphans of a sort. Trey lives with his Aunt Mabel, Emma's good friend; his parents are still alive but no one knows where they are. John, whose mother died when he was a small child, lives with his hard-drinking, abusive, and neglectful father.

Of course, Cathy falls hard for one of her knights, but it's the other who would fall on his sword for her: "He would keep his brief glance of Catherine Ann Benson to himself," one of the boys thinks, "a secret he would not share … until tomorrow morning when he could introduce himself to her and become her protector for the rest of her life."

As the "rest of their lives" progress, the trio must deal with an accidental death that gets unwisely covered up, an unexpected pregnancy (with confusion over paternity), scattering to different colleges, and eventually, horrific betrayal, murder, and bittersweet resolution.

Like the Southwest plant of its title, Cathy, Trey Don, and John spend their lives untethered -- hapless souls fervently looking for places to take root and stick. As she relates their journey, Meacham's prose is straightforward and uncomplicated, the perfect style for writing about her outwardly straightforward but inwardly complicated protagonists.

The story itself is richly textured; the writer doesn't need to stoop to fancy word flourishes, and Meacham wisely refrains from showing off.

If you're going to a beach this summer, or better yet, a windswept prairie, this tale of friendship, love, remorse, and redemption is definitely a book you'll want to pack.