Sixteen year-old Jack Pool loves Emaline Durham, but he can never have her. This is 1928, and at that time a Jew like Jack could never be with a Christian girl. Within a few pages, this failed relationship helps underline the religious rift in their small town, a rift that widens when Emaline’s sister, Daisy, goes missing—and Jack is accused of murdering her.
At the heart of The Blood Lie is a true horror story in more than one sense; not only is the book based on a real incident in Massena, New York in 1928, but there are tragic cases of anti-Semitism in our time, too. The blood lie, a false myth that Jews need Christian blood for their holiday meals, is alive and relevant.
Massena, with its quaint shops, beautiful woods, and small town living, wouldn’t seem a likely setting for hate crimes, and maybe that’s the point. The strongest section of the story is the opening, when Vernick paints life in the Roaring 20’s. All the characters use old fashioned expressions (“That’s the bees knees!”) and do old fashioned things (“Let’s listen to the radio”) which plants readers firmly in Vernick’s world. Then, rather belatedly, the real story begins…but nothing happens.
My biggest problem with The Blood Lie is that it is too tame. I felt the book heading towards an explosive climax, but it never developed. In fact, it never even gets close. There are a few bad events, but the book loses its cautionary theme because it doesn’t have a tragic outcome. And if the book isn’t cautionary, where is the substance its horrifying premise seems to promise?
The plot’s central trouble is started by a greedy bootlegger, who whips up the blood lie for personal gain. Yet after a few scenes, that character largely drops out, and the story loses a crucial player. If the bootlegger isn’t the central villain, is it the police officer who believes him? Is it the thoughtless mob? Neither one is truly hateful, just ignorant. For a book about hate, no one is all that mean.
In addition, Vernick writes from multiple points of view, but doesn’t use this technique to create tension more than once or twice. When the reader knows what the characters do not, the author can manipulate our feelings. But Vernick doesn’t take advantage of that position; instead, she just lets us know what a few people are thinking.
Finally, there is one detail that feels like the lynchpin to a disastrous end. It comes just when things are looking up, and made me shiver when I read it, thinking that the tragedy must be mere pages away. But for some reason, that creepy detail is never built upon. I wonder why it was included at all.
Bottom line: There are a few bright spots in the book, including a strong setting and good central character, but the anemic plot never fulfills our expectations.
Evan is a learning teenage writers whose ambition is to become a film director someday, but not until he’s published a few books first. In the meantime, he spends his time playing drums in his jazz band 3 AM Groove, writing for the school paper, building sets on stage crew, and trying to perfect his 100 greatest movies of all time list. He does not like long walks on the beach.