Emily Skinner has felt weird her whole life, and college was supposed to be her ticket out. But when she’s unable to maintain the grades to keep her scholarship, her once-bright prospects dim: “Where she was headed, the cast iron skillet had been seasoned before she was born.” Emily is forced to return to Drear’s Bluff, the small town in Arkansas where “no one was anything but boring and normal. Weird was the worst thing you could be.”

The novel starts slowly, introducing us to the town and its cast of interrelated characters. Everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone else’s business. For Emily, the town’s only redeeming feature is Jody, her high school best friend and unrequited crush. If Emily’s prospects are slim, Jody’s are slimmer, as she has become an unwed, unemployed mom living alone with her infant in a trailer on her family’s chicken farm in the middle of the woods. The chicken house masquerades as a meth lab. Nevertheless, smitten Emily is once again pulled into the gravity of Jody’s orbit.

The titular viper makes its appearance while the two friends revisit a local swimming hole. Only once does the author mention the snake by name in the book, but the single mention holds the significance of the novel in its lone sentence: “The dark, triangular head of a cottonmouth skimmed its head along the surface.” As the title implies, there are multiple dark and venomous realities lurking beneath the surface. Among them are Emily’s struggle with sexuality, failure, shame, desire, judgment, and guilt. Dark realities skim beneath Drear’s Bluff itself, with its smalltown ethos, its complicity. “Farms in shambles. Acres of land wasted away until deer season and the pittance hunters paid to use it. Such talk didn’t garner much time or attention at her mom’s prayer circle though, close as it was to the pride they swallowed every time they passed another FOR SALE sign. Or yards and lives that rotted around them, an embarrassment they all pretended not to notice.”

The aptly named Drear’s Bluff could be transposed to just about any Smalltown, USA, in the sense of its small-mindedness and its resistance to change. “It’s still guns and God’s country,” says author Kelly J. Ford. “Moreso with the progression of equal rights as people cling to the storied past.” Ford’s novel features a lesbian protagonist, yet her sexuality is only one facet of her strongly drawn character. Emily suffers from unrequited love, from betrayal, and from a longing for meaning and acceptance. Her struggles, as well as those of her family and community, are universal struggles set in a brutal reality where choices are scarce. Read this debut novel for its ability to go beneath the surface, striking impressive depths of character and setting.

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Kelly Ford’s debut novel, Cottonmouths, is out now from Skyhorse Publishing.She is an instructor for GrubStreet Writing Center and a regular contributor to the website Dead Darlings. Her fiction has appeared in Black Heart MagazineFried Chicken and Coffee, and Knee-Jerk Magazine. She is also a freelance editor and software project manager and has over 15 years’ experience managing projects from conception to completion in industries such as higher education, technology, and publishing.