If you knew someone was about to die, would you tell them even if you knew they wouldn't believe you? This is how "The Cypress House" starts out, with Arlen Wagner and Paul Brickhill on a train to a new worksite in Florida. The year is 1935 and Wagner and Brickhill are part of a group of veterans and young men working for the government to build bridges and roads. Arlen has the uncanny ability to tell when someone is about to die because he sees swirls of smoke in their eyes or surrounding them. As he and Paul are sitting on the train, Arlen begins to see smoke in the eyes of all of the other passengers on the train and struggles with himself to share this information because he has been met with ridicule in the past. Despite his initial incredulity, Paul decides to give Arlen the benefit of the doubt and they try to warn the other men not to get back on the train when they stop to refuel. Of course, the train stops in a sliver of a town that doesn't have anything going for it and the men think Arlen and Paul are being ridiculous about not getting back on the train when there are guaranteed wages ahead of them in the Florida Keys.
Paul and Arlen stay behind and along the way they meet up with a "traveling salesman" (read as bootlegger/drug dealer) who offers to give them a ride as he makes his stops on his business route. When strange circumstances befall the traveling salesman at The Cypress House, Arlen and Paul are arrested by a backwater sheriff who answers to an extremely corrupt judge. After days of torture they are finally released from jail where the story really just begins. They end up being forced to stay at The Cypress House after their money is stolen, only to find out a few days later that all of the men on the train have died because of a Category 5 hurricane that has wiped out the Florida Keys (click here for facts about this actual hurricane).
Although Paul and Arlen are relieved to have been spared such a tragic end, their story is only beginning as they try to make their way south to a different work camp. Arlen has a difficult past that rears its head in a number of ways throughout the book and things are complicated by Rebecca Cady, the proprietress of The Cypress House who wants nothing to do with Arlen or Paul and does everything in her power to drive them away. As the book progresses and more of Rebecca's story is revealed, the reader learns to hate Solomon Wade - the corrupt judge - as much as Rebecca, Arlen, and Paul do.
There are a number of twists and turns in the plot including unrequited love, family obligations, murder, corruption, and redemption with some supernatural undertones throughout the book. The author, Michael Koryta, is well known for his suspenseful and somewhat macabre tales. Other books by Michael Koryta include "So Cold the River," "The Ridge," and "Tonight I Said Goodbye" -- all available at Cecil County Public Library.
Recommended by LaTanya West