Return to Crutcher Mountain is sort of a follow-up to Melinda Clayton’s first book, Appalachian Justice, actually taking place several months later from where AJ ended. The focus in this book is on Jessie, whose tortured childhood past was revealed in AJ. In Clayton’s second book, Jessie is all grown up and doing well for herself. She’s got a steady career in Hollywood as a filmmaker and she’s happily dating. In true Southern Lit fashion, something happens “back home,” calling Jessie to return to the small town she so eagerly escaped long ago.
But Jessie’s roots are still planted firm in Cedar Hollow. After Billy May (Jessie’s mother by heart who is the central character in AJ) passed away, Jessie turned Billy May’s cabin into a wilderness lodge for children with special needs. Crutcher Mountain had been a rehabilitative sanctuary for both Jessie and Billy May, and it was Billy May’s wish for other children to experience it the same way. When strange events start happening at the lodge, possibly putting the children in danger, a note actually surfaces requesting Jessie to return to the mountain.
Clayton herself is a psychotherapist and her background shines through in the narrative. While the mystery here is not as complex as in her other books, there’s still something peculiar going on. But Clayton has built a strong psyche for each of her characters with Dr. Wright, head of the lodge, as the center catalyst. The reader is unsure if there’s an underlying evil waiting to strike out from somewhere, and so we keep reading just to find out! Add to this another mystery concerning the identity of Jessie’s true father, a pair of elderly but odd caretakers at the lodge, a disgruntled ex lodge employee, and an aloof sheriff, and you’ve got backwood small town drama at its finest.
The book is told in first person narrative mainly from Jessie’s point of view, making it easy to warm up to her as a character, but there are a few chapters told from Robby’s perspective. He is a young boy at the lodge with Down Syndrome who takes a liking to Jessie once she arrives. Their relationship and how they help each other provides a warm minor plot line that really gives the book heart.
Overall, this is a quick read that relies strongly on the setting of Cedar Hollow, much like Clayton’s other two books. And it is through this setting that we fall in love with the characters – though often stereotypes of small town life in real society or on the old black and white TV days gone by – they are ones we relate to, particularly when we have small town blood ourselves. Clayton writes it so well, and that’s why she has easily become one of my favorite authors over the past year.