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Cottonwood Whispers by Jennifer Erin Valent

Reviewed by C.J. Darlington

"Valent transports you to authentic 1930s Virginia ... we feel like we’ve lived a few weeks in the South after reading one of Valent’s books. "

In the four years since the events of Fireflies in December, Jessilyn Lassiter has grown into a young woman of seventeen. She’s still the feisty, head-strong character we remember, but almost killing a man and facing an angry KKK mob has a way of forcing a girl to grow up fast. Maybe she’s lost some innocence, but Jessilyn’s still a kid—much to her dismay. She longs for the day when her friend Luke Talley sees her as more than a girl, but until then life’s confusing enough. Her best friend Gemma, like a sister in every way except her skin color, has grown up fast herself. Now she’s working at a wealthy family’s estate, and her crush on the youngest son thrusts her into another event which threatens to tear her and Jessilyn apart.

A young girl’s death, a mother’s grief, an innocent man accused of murder . . . all only add to Jessilyn’s warring emotions. Her heart cries for justice, but in 1936 Virginia justice comes too often in the form of a vigilante mob. Will Jessilyn’s family survive another tumultuous summer?

In her follow-up to the award-winning novel Fireflies in December Jennifer Erin Valent had a tough act to follow. Aging a character isn’t easy, but Valent’s sophomore project is just as good as her first. She nails the dialect and mannerisms of southern Virginia with ease. We hear the accents perfectly without wading through phonetic gibberish. We feel the tangible struggles of a family surviving the lean Depression era.

Prejudice and its devastating consequences took front and center in Fireflies in December, and it’s the theme here in Cottonwood Whispers as well. But this time it’s not so much whites against blacks (though that’s still a prevalent aspect), it’s more about racism toward the simple, those who aren’t like us, people who are different. Jessilyn can’t stand either kind of prejudice, and we cheer her on as she fights for her beliefs and speaks out for those who can’t speak for themselves. But being bold sometimes has it’s consequences, and Jessilyn once again faces the judgement of Calloway County.

These are heavy themes Valent tackles, but she does so with grace. There are still enough lighter moments between Luke and Jessilyn to keep the balance, and the thread of mystery weaves through the chapters. We read on not only to discover a killer’s identity but to grow alongside Jessilyn.

Valent transports you to authentic 1930s Virginia without bogging you down with so many historical details and facts you can’t see the story for the words. Story is never sacrificed for facts and figures, and yet we feel like we’ve lived a few weeks in the South after reading one of Valent’s books.

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C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.