Ghost Town Truck Stop by Barbara Paulding
In a small Montana town, Katie O’Connor works at the local diner and gas station, which caters to big-rig truckers stopping in for a quick bite or nap before heading back out on the road. Katie meets a variety of men and women during her workdays, but she has never met someone like Rob Townsend, a spirited and kind divorcee who uses humor to cover up his painful past. Soon after arriving at Ghost Town, a blizzard descends upon the buildings and trucks, forcing visitors to extend their stays and leaving others in peril, stuck in their vehicles on the open highways. As Katie and Rob explore the possibility of a relationship, they begin to realize that not only has the bad weather prevented people from leaving the town – but it has trapped a dark presence in with them.
Paulding’s story, though inarguably moving, sometimes even verges on the poetic. Certain scenes – the prologue, for instance, where one character regards the fleeting and unknowable beauty of nature – exhibit an attention to word choice and sentence structure that borders on the musical. But while the writing itself is particularly powerful, the story and characters suffer from deep flaws. Katie’s niece, Jennifer, is an artistic ingenue whose sexual abuse as a child has left profound marks on her life today. Sadly, she feels more like a prop than a person, trotted out so that Katie can exhibit tender, motherly emotions, and so that the antagonist in the story has a mark to pursue. Perhaps Jennifer would have seemed a bit more believable if we had also been given details about her interests outside of art, or information about her friends, or any number of small things that make a person unique and tangible. Another issue was the inclusion of too many characters in the story. The focus of the narrative is on Katie and Rob, though there are also chapters told from the perspective of Rob’s son, his ex-wife, Jennifer, an old friend of Katie’s, and a handful of others. Again, certain characters felt written in to serve the story’s protagonists, as in the trucker trapped during the storm that Rob must rescue; otherwise, they did little to expand the plot or themes. Had the book been given a little more room to breathe – maybe as few as fifty additional pages – it more than likely could have blossomed into a near-perfect novel. With more narration, we could have gotten a greater sense of the characters and their separate plights, in a manner that the book’s current format does not allow.
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