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The Legend of Rachel Petersen

by J. T. Baroni

Rating: ***

When sports journalist Christian Kane misses out on a promotion that he assumed would be his, he is stunned and resigns from The Pittsburgh Post Gazette in disgust.

Despite his wife Shelby’s reservations, the Kanes move to the country where Christian intends to spend his days writing a novel.

When he comes across a solitary gravestone on the boundary of their new estate, once known as “Tremont Farm”, he is fascinated, even more so when the inscription reveals that a twelve-year-old girl, Rachel Petersen, was buried there in 1863.  Christian decides that his book will tell her story. But, does Rachel Petersen want her story told?...

The Legend of Rachel Petersen is inspired by the Author’s intriguing discovery of a lone tombstone and it’s clear that Baroni had a lot of fun writing this novel despite some of its harrowing content. However, I would certainly level that there is an over-abundance of exclamation marks which often sit awkwardly with the nature of the prose.

The first four chapters concern Christian and Shelby who appear to exist in an almost-fairytale-like state of near-perfection. Nevertheless, the reader senses an edge through the sugary happiness, and indeed, when Christian is overlooked for the promotion that he thought was foregone, their world comes crashing down, a little.

Christian certainly lacks awareness, of himself and others. Shelby has a backbone of steel, which she disguises, but it keeps her, and even though he is oblivious, Christian, from going under.

However, Christian, at this point, is merely a conduit for Rachel Petersen’s story and Chapter 5 is where the novel within a novel begins and the reader properly embarks on “The Legend of Rachel Petersen”.

This embedded narrative is nicely different in tone, with more depth and description. Although Baroni takes the reader back to the mid-nineteenth century, most of Rachel’s tale is set in 1950 when young brothers, Thaddeus and Seth Yoder stumble across her grave, much like Christian.

Baroni paints a convincing picture of the mid-century rustic Yoder boys, their domestic life on Tremont Farm, and their daily banter. It makes for a nicely readable, sepia-toned story despite the creeping sense of unease once Thaddeus disturbs Rachel’s resting place.

Notwithstanding the developing supernatural elements or in sharp contrast to them, Baroni’s prose flows with a breezy, often chatty tempo. This is tempered slightly when he introduces the Gatlin brothers, Civil War deserters who hold the key to exactly what happened to Rachel and the other occupants of Tremont Farm in 1863.

Events in both timelines gather pace and connect through the decades, helped in no small part by the ancient Sam Woodley, who was a clever addition to both stories in Kane’s “novel”.

Indeed, Baroni has included several different literary techniques and a number of motifs throughout the entire book which skillfully link the present to the past. He has produced a fairly intricate and involving story but it never reads as such and Baroni effortlessly maintains continuity and interest.

Chapter 16 transports the reader back from Christian’s novel and into real-time. Baroni offers quite a humorous, and I suspect, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the pitfalls and positivities of publishing, marketing, and querying.

Nonetheless, the remaining four chapters occasionally feel like Baroni has thrown every trope into them. Personally, although it’s quite good fun, credibility feels a touch stretched and it’s all a little dizzying, if somewhat amusing.

Overall, The Legend of Rachel Petersen is a curiously addictive and absorbing novel that is deceptively complex and well-crafted. Well worth a look for fans of the supernatural.

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