The Boatwright family is in trouble. Creditor’s send bills to their workplaces, they’re in danger of losing their house to foreclosure, the mom, Patsy, has a drinking problem, the dad, Mitch, is religious, passive and ineffectual and their youngest son, Jase, is just a kid — clueless and mostly tuned into video games. There may be some hope for their eldest daughter, Tara (yeah, like the plantation) she’s going to night school and taking organic chemistry with the dream of finding a way out of Brunswick, Georgia. And then the worst possible thing happens – they win the Georgia mega-millions lottery. That’s three hundred and eighteen million dollars.
Turns out Patsy Boatwright has been buying lottery tickets for years, parking herself on the sofa on Wednesday nights to watch the drawing with a steady flow of gin & tonic’s. Chapter one ends with Patsy holding the winning ticket, yelling “GRACE OF GOD! GRACE OF GOD! GRACE OF GOD!” while rocking back and forth in front of the television. Enter Shaw and Romeo, young tech support workers from Dayton, Ohio, driving through Brunswick on their way to Florida. On their way, that is, until they stop at a convenience store, the very store which has sold Mitch Boatwright the winning lottery ticket. When a pretty young clerk rebuffs Shaw’s advances, and lies to him about knowing who won the jackpot, “a shaft of anger” opens up inside him, into which the seed of a plan begins to germinate. It’s a plan to terrorize the Boatwrights into giving him and his buddy Romeo half of the jackpot.
The plan seems far-fetched at first – Shaw overhears the convenience store
clerk talking about who bought the winning ticket, then he does a little online sleuthing to find out who the family might be. Of course, it’s frighteningly easy for anyone with a little bit of knowledge to find out a whole lot about anyone over the internet – that’s the point here. Shaw is quickly on the scent of the Boatwrights. He scares up the most information from Tara’s MySpace page. Shaw’s character is well drawn – multi-faceted and increasingly frightening. He’s strange at first and angry and says some weird things: “Here’s this universe filled with power, right? These energies, all around us, in every molecule. And you and me, we’re smart, we’re capable, we’re clever. . . . But we might as well be ghosts. We can’t seem to get hold of a fucking thing. . . Everything goes to someone else.” So Shaw decides it’s time he gets hold of the Boatwright’s windfall.
After cleverly inveigling his way into their home by pretending to be from the Lottery Commission, Shaw sets forth his scheme: he will take half the winnings and leave them alone once he has it. In the meantime he will live with them, they will concoct a believable story about how he came to know them and bought the winning ticket with Mitch but if anyone tries to stop him or tip off the police, he will kill their loved ones one by one. For emphasis he has them turn out the lights and look out the window at his partner, Romeo, skulking under the chestnut tree in the front yard, lit by a streetlight. He’s the partner and designated killer should anything go wrong. And right then, just after threatening them, Shaw tells the Boatwrights about his dream, “all this love; I want to bring kindness and truth and virtue to the world. But I’ve never had the tools before, and here a tool is set down before me—.“ The tool, of course, being the Boatwrights’ windfall.
The cover story is that Shaw met Mitch Boatwright when Mitch was in Greenville, SC at a training course for work. Mitch volunteered at a crisis center through his church, Faith Renewal, and Shaw was a desperate suicidal man. Mitch had saved his life. They convince everyone that Mitch and Shaw were buddies, that Shaw came to Brunswick to visit Mitch and they bought the lottery tickets together. And here’s where things get all Southern Gothic. The Boatwrights are, of course, good church going Christians. At the press conference announcing the winners, Shaw tells the bogus story about their meeting, how Mitch saved his life and then Shaw stuns the crowd by saying he plans to give most of his share of the money away.
The rest of the novel plays out with Romeo stalking the Boatwright’s loved ones while an old cop, Burris Jones, nicknamed Deppity Dog, who has been in love with Tara’s Grandma, Nell, since they were in high school together, continues to sniff around and investigate, like a dog on a bone. And Deppity Dog smells a rat. The family becomes more and more terrified and yet strangely drawn to the charismatic and clearly crazy Shaw as he achieves rock star status in their little town and especially in the Faith Renewal church community. He begins to have followers, pilgrims, so many want to hear Shaw speak about the miracle of winning the mega-millions lottery and his dream to use the money to make the world a better place that they have to set up camp out at the local fairgrounds. Then Diane Sawyer interviews Shaw, asks him about all these disciples he’s attracted — does he think the Lord is calling him? Is his winning the jackpot some kind of divine intervention? Shaw knows that the pilgrims love him, that he has “woven this whole world out of pure faith. It’s a kind of magical tapestry of faith and love and power and it’s come alive now.”
Ravens is suspenseful and well-written — a page turner. Occasionally I had trouble suspending disbelief — how long could these guys really hold this family hostage with all the media attention they were getting? But Shaw’s deeply flawed, twisted character, his apparent belief in divine intervention, the unhinged scenarios that play through his mind as the action plays out on the page kept me reading and wondering how the Boatwright’s could possibly get out of this mess. And the religious aspect kept me fascinated. It’s absurd that Shaw can so easily exploit the Boatwright’s and the larger community’s belief in a personal God, right? These salt of the earth, church-going Southern folk know that God controls the lives of ordinary humans and are thrilled to experience the miracle of the mega-millions jackpot personally, right here and right now in the twenty-first century, in their own town. God has sent his prophet Shaw to Brunswick, Georgia to walk among them, to heal the sick and feed the poor. The author explores this theme throughout the novel as the community and most everyone in the family begins to believe. Mitch Boatwright goes from believing that his family has been blessed by God with all this money, to blaming their own greed for what is happening. Finally Mitch concludes that Shaw and Romeo have been sent from God to test their strength and that they have been found wanting. Except for Tara. Tara’s the one who’s going to college, who has read books other than the bible. Keep your eye on Tara as you read this book, and on Deppity Dog. Love and education are more powerful than blind faith and ignorance, even in South Georgia.