The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young is a Southern Gothic mystery debut that combines literary suspense and romance with a mystical twist.
I don’t usually pass up a southern gothic novel. With The Gates of Evangeline being just that—along with suspense, a deep and entrenching mystery, and a paranormal twist—I was easily sold. It surprised me that this was a debut novel, as author Hester Young brings beautiful writing and wonderful storytelling to the table with the ease of a seasoned and practiced hand.
The setting is highly effective in carrying the story and paralleling, while subsequently enhancing, the characters’ emotions. The brooding Louisiana swamps along with the spooky and frightening visions that Charlie Cates, our protagonist, begins to have, lead us on an otherworldly pursuit of rescue and closure.
At the start of the book, Charlie is a divorced woman mourning the loss of her only child. A successful journalist, Charlie is stuck at a publication she doesn’t like. Shambling through her days, medicating to sleep, and basically numb to everything, she is offered a job from an ex-employer. She will need to temporarily relocate to Evangeline, a mansion in the Louisiana bayous, and dive into a missing child case from thirty years ago.
Along with the mystery is the complex Deveau family, who lost their two-year-old son, Gabriel, in the early 80s. Money, secrets, and lies envelop the family, as Charlie chips away to find the truth.
A fascinating aspect of Charlie, which weaves in a brilliant paranormal element, is that she has begun to have visions where different children will reach out to her and ask for her help. Her first vision guides her to Louisiana. She starts to question her sanity until the visions begin to become concrete.
I can’t pinpoint the moment I cross over. It comes slowly: the seductive darkness, my face and limbs dissolving into something weightless and fuzzy. Then consciousness spreads through me like caffeine. My senses come alive.
This time there is water. A soft shhh, on either side of me.
I wait. Try to orient myself. Am I in a boat?
The darkness lifts, and a picture forms. Swamp. I’m in a rowboat, drifting through brown water and swirls of green scum. Around me I see dead leaves, rotted branches curling like fingers, partially submerged trees clawing their way upward. On my right, I catch a flash of movement. Watchful green eyes peer up at me. An alligator.
I drift along, trying to read the light, to get a sense of time. Morning? Evening? The swamp is sunless and dreary, offering no clues.
I feel him before I see him. Someone is with me. A small figure in a white shirt sits across from me in the boat. His face comes to me as if through mist, indistinct smudges giving way to flesh. Is it him? It is Keegan?
As Charlie tries to understand these strange occurrences, she feels obligated to do everything she can to help the children that reach out to her. This obligation gives her a new reason to get up every day, and it gives her hope as she maneuvers through her grief—all the while holding onto the chance that in one of these visions she might get to see her son again. Young conveys Charlie’s tumultuous emotions with ease.
Hope, wild and desperate, takes root within my chest. If I do what she wants, can she help me talk to him? Can I finally see my son? But I lost the picture before she could give me something concrete. I don’t have a clue who the girl is, don’t know how I’m supposed to track down her father. And even if I did, what would I say? Hi, I’m Charlotte Cates. Your daughter came to me in a dream and told me she’s going to die tomorrow. And do the numbers four and sixteen mean anything to you?
Charlie is not without her faults. A self-professed stoic New Englander, she’s from Connecticut and not used to the casual and conservative style, not to mention the thick accents, that she encounters in Louisiana. She’s an intelligent woman who realizes her own shortcomings and prejudices, but her lifestyle is in such stark contrast to what she is thrown into at Evangeline and with the Deveau family and the staff. Even though she comes to love many of them, it is a learning process as we see here with the resident chef, Leeann:
Six months ago I would have had nothing but disdain for Leeann. She is an overweight, uneducated twenty-three-year-old unwed mother who has lived her entire life in Chicory, Louisiana. She’s never been out of state, and her only goals in life are to marry her hard-to-pin-down boyfriend and have more children. To the elitist Manhattanite, Leeann’s not much, but she’s kind, something I’m learning to appreciate.
She finds love and acceptance, and ultimately, Charlie finds herself in Louisiana. In the beginning, we see a beaten down, grieving mother that eventually starts to find hope and a way to continue without her son. It’s the thing parents fear most.
Despite the heavy subject, the story never pulls you down or becomes too negative. If anything, I rooted for Charlie to get through this. I wanted to see her have better days. Given that, I really loved the ending of this story.
All in all, I shed a few tears, had a few gasp moments, and even laughed at times as I read this one. The beautiful prose and the fantastic story that Young provides are not soon forgotten. Open The Gates of Evangeline for yourself and explore the mystery.
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Amber Keller is a writer who delves into dark, speculative fiction, particularly horror and suspense/thrillers. You can find her work on her Amazon Author Page and she also features many short stories on Diary of a Writer. A member of the Horror Writers Association, she contributes to many websites and eMagazines and you can follow her on Twitter @akeller9.