Southern Cross the Dog

Photo: Devon Jarvis/Studio D

3 of 18
Southern Cross the Dog
336 pages; Ecco
Robert Lee Chatham, the protagonist of Bill Cheng's harrowing novel, Southern Cross the Dog (Amistad), is unlucky, "bad crossed...crossed worse than the blackest jinx." The tragic trajectory of Robert's life begins after he and his family barely survive the great Mississippi flood of 1927. With their home and life as they'd known it washed away, Robert's father leaves him in the care of Miss Lucy, mistress of the brothel Beau-Miel, where he runs errands, first tastes love, meets an eerily talented piano player, and finds the word to describe his sorry lot in life: abandoned. 

Beau-Miel is destroyed in a fire, leaving Robert to wander a broken land. The novel follows him on his haunted odyssey as he joins a rough work crew and is captured by a mysterious band of fur trappers deep in Mississippi swampland. Wherever Robert goes, something dark and cursed sticks to him. Ultimately, he must decide whether to set off for the future or remain with the devil he's known all along. 

Cheng beautifully captures the noisy multitudes of the Jim Crow South in the early 20th century, slipping into different dialects and cadences with rugged grace, never losing sight of the story's beating human center, and bringing to life an imagined landscape where the moon "ooze[s] like a pustule" and "bits of mirror [are] nailed to the trees" to ward off lurking spirits. Finally, we are reminded of the enduring strength required to navigate that "place of lost and losing," our world.
— Zoe Donaldson