“This is a hell of a country, isn’t it? You choose your story. Then you go out and make it happen.” In Lydia Peelle’s debut novel, The Midnight Cool, main characters Billy and Charlie are doing exactly that, harnessing their charm, grit and self-reliance to forge a better life. This theme is not new, but in the gifted hands of Peelle it rises off the page in a fresh, daring fashion.
The Midnight Cool opens in the summer of 1916, as war rages in Europe and political tensions are running high. Charlie and Billy are traveling horse traders who arrive in Richfield, Tennessee, a fictional town just north of Nashville. Both are smooth-talking grifters who specialize in the art of the underhanded deal.
Upon arriving in town they set their sights on a gorgeous mare who belongs to the wealthy Leland Hatcher. Despite warnings from Catherine, Leland’s daughter, they purchase the mare only to discover her violent, deadly past. Indebted and unable to unload the temperamental animal, they turn to selling mules to the British army to recoup their lost funds. All the while, Charlie’s feelings for Catherine, a woman very much above his station, are intensifying, and the bonds between Charlie and Billy are beginning to fray.
Peelle is a writer to watch. She deftly recounts the surprisingly fascinating history of mules, who bore the brunt of American labor during this period and whose resiliency and strength made them key players in the war effort, while also giving us a rich, satisfying novel, full of memorable characters grappling with love, loyalty, identity and the struggle to build something that lasts in a rapidly changing world.