Missouri novelist Laura McHugh proved herself a master of suspense in her first two novels, including the best-selling The Weight of Blood, which won the state’s top prize for fiction in 2016.
McHugh’s latest, The Wolf Wants In, is something of a departure. The story takes place in fictional Blackwater, Kansas, where grain silos stand tall over the seemingly innocent town with no streetlights. Whereas her earlier novels were fast-paced thrillers, Wolf is dark and brooding.
In Blackwater, an opioid epidemic plunders. Sadie begins digging into the suspicious death of her brother Shane, which was assumed to be a drug overdose.
McHugh is not unfamiliar with this territory. She grew up in rural Missouri and Iowa. Her first novel, The Weight of Blood, takes place in the Ozarks, and her second, Arrowood, in Iowa. Wolf also echoes her brother’s unexplained death several years ago. The story finds resolution she still hasn’t found regarding her own brother’s passing.
“There were really just a lot of unanswered questions around it,” McHugh says. “I was trying to write a story about someone who went through a similar loss, who’s trying to unravel secrets left behind by a loved one.”
McHugh is also haunted by the case of 16-year-old Savannah Leckie, who was abused and murdered by her mother in Theodosia, Missouri.
“People sometimes think, ‘Oh, small towns are so safe and quaint,’ and they get upset that I write about dark crimes in small towns,” she says. “But really, there are a lot of true ones, I think. That was a big one.”
In McHugh’s experience, many rural residents — young people in particular — are itching to get out. It’s a common theme in her work, where characters are often seeking to escape their bucolic environment.
“A lot of these small towns are dying off,” she says. “You know, they’re shriveling up, stores have closed, there are not a lot of jobs, so the situation is not always great there. A lot of people are happy to be there because their families have lived there for generations. But then for other people, it’s just that hunger to get out and to get to something else, something bigger.”
McHugh says she’s gotten pushback from people offended by the way she represents them. “They take it personally and think their culture and lifestyle is being portrayed like they’re unintelligent,” she says.
It’s something locals have been particularly sensitive about. New York Times bestseller Gone Girl by Kansas Citian Gillian Flynn and Netflix’s Ozark both stirred the pot when they were released. A writer for Vox Magazine reported that Ozark portrays the area as “mysteriously ominous” half of the time and the other half a place “where college kids and country folk alike come to ride boats, drink beer and party naked.”
McHugh makes it clear that she’s not trying to push anyone’s buttons. She praises the literary works of Mark Twain and the novel Shepherd of the Hills, set in small-town Missouri. “You know, this is where I’m from, too,” she says. “It’s my home, too, and I like to see my home portrayed in media in some ways.
“I kind of hope it encourages more people from here to write their own stories about this place and the way that they see it,” she says. “And those could be really powerful, uplifting stories, but mine happens to be crime-centered.”
GO: Rainy Day Books brings Laura McHugh to read from The Wolf Wants In. 2706 W. 53rd St., Fairway, Kan. Wednesday, Aug. 7. 6:30 pm. Preorder the book here.