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Author Jeff Hobbs on "The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts"

LongShadowSmallGhostsJeff Hobbs is the author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, the highly-acclaimed account of a brilliant young black man straddling two lives, one in the poverty-riddled inner city of Newark, NJ and the other in Yale's Ivy League halls. Hobbs was Robert Peace's friend and roommate at Yale for four years, but after Peace's violent and tragic murder, he came to discover that he hadn't known his good friend as well as he thought. It's hard to know what goes through another person's mind, and the effect of tragedies--especially murder--on a community can be profound.

Here, Hobbs writes about a new work of nonfiction, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, written by a veteran journalist who became intimately familiar with the people and community surrounding the shocking murder of three small children in a small Texas border town.


The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts

"Heinous crimes are like that, people said. They do not teach lessons, they only confirm the worst suspicions about what can happen in our world."

It is preferable and somehow comforting to believe that the above words, from the first page of Laura Tillman's The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, are true. Such belief frees us from having to confront and untangle the crimes we designate as heinous, and suggests that stories like this one need not be told. Tillman's work shows us, profoundly, why these stories – and particularly this story – not only need to be told, but also read.

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts remained in my "stack" for some time before I ventured to open its cover. Not because I had more compelling books to read first, but because I had many books and other stored media that wouldn't involve me in the deaths of three small children: biographies capturing the rises and falls of various great, flawed figures; fiction that, even in the instance of visceral pain and loss, remains adjacent to the world we inhabit; television in which the by now de riguer "shocking" deaths that strain the bandwidth of social media are portrayed, often impactfully, by performers who continue to live and breathe. The fact is, the majority of stories don't ask their audience to feel real horror, pain, powerlessness, and loss at their greatest depths the way that, as the haunting cover promises, this book does.

Laura Tillman could have avoided following through on this promise; she could have used narrative device or simple evasion to ensure a "safer" book. Instead, she meticulously crafts the promise into the pages. I'd venture Tillman understood that without the sheer difficulty of these moments – without the terrifying ineffectuality one feels in the face of the grotesque – then she could not have fulfilled her true intention, which is to explore everything surrounding the words we use to label such boxes in the attic of our minds: "heinous," "unspeakable," "insane," "monster."

This book is about people in motion and a place in stasis. It begins with the journalist – Tillman – assigned to write a short piece about the apartment where the unspeakable took place, a haunted location to the memorable residents surrounding it, a real estate dilemma to the powers that be. With an internal drive approaching the supernatural (the supernatural in which a number of the characters wholly believe), she then moves inexorably and humanely through the personal stories preceding and following the crime, as well as the compelling history of a border town. With insight that drills far beneath common assumptions, she interweaves the pressures of poverty, desperation, mental illness, violence, and parenthood. With tenderness, she unfastens the tragic clasps of youth, family, romance, dreams, and love. In the end, she shines a powerful light into these titular shadows, which themselves fall under the shadows of our nation.

There are so many voices in this book, some resigned, some torn, some inexplicable, and some even funny. The voice of the author herself is one of compassion and the limitless desire to understand. That desire is contagious and is sure to alter your emotional interaction not only with the events she describes, but within the structures of your own life, your family, your friends, the person sitting next to you on the bus.

In one of the most affecting passages, she walks through the apartment featured on the cover, virtually untouched since the unspeakable occurred. These paragraphs are gripping, raw, and beautifully written. She intellectualizes nothing. No matter where you might be sitting when you read them – a sun porch, a bed, a DMV waiting area – they bring you there, to that town, that complex, that hallway, that moment. It's a moment we'd all prefer to cast off with a single word. That Tillman does not allow us to do so is all to the good and might even leave you changed.

--Jeff Hobbs

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