You will likely go mad trying to pinpoint the location of Roam. It is emerald green; it is dark and dangerous. Butterflies flit about; ghosts buy their brew at the local bar. It has healing waters hidden in damp caves. Its residents have poisoned minds and suspicious hearts.
The people and setting were all imagined several years ago by Chapel Hill-based writer Daniel Wallace. But Roam could be in the Appalachian Mountains or hidden away in the Rockies. The only specific town mentioned in the book is San Francisco.
The central characters — other than the town, of course — are sisters Rachel and Helen McCallister. Rachel, blinded by fever as a child, has depended on Helen for guidance and wisdom. Roam, Helen tells Rachel, is a place surrounded by evil spirits. Helen convinces her sister, a fair-skinned beauty, that she is ugly and that people feel sorry for her because of her homely nature. In fact, the opposite is true — neighbors cannot bear to look at Helen’s coarsely arranged features.
The town is on a mountain, separated from the world by a ravine and a rickety bridge constructed years ago by the town’s founder, Elijah McCallister. Elijah built Roam on deception, and eventually, darkness, illness, and despair fill it. The silk factory shuts down. Residents leave. Buildings collapse and ghosts move into the dilapidated homes.
But Rachel and Helen remain. Eventually, Helen’s cruelty culminates in a gripping scene, and Rachel makes a harrowing decision that alters both sisters.
Wallace’s gothic fairy tale moves at a fast pace, and he uses subplots and secondary characters to keep the reader intrigued by Helen and Rachel’s narrative. The story of a place, relationships, and forgiveness emerges as the pages turn, each chapter driving the reader forward to the surprising climax.
In the end, the reader forgets about Roam and where it may be marked on map. The question of its location is left unanswered, left for the reader to decide, left, really, to the imagination.
Q & A with Daniel Wallace
Q. When did you first form this idea?
A. That very first paragraph I wrote without having any idea where the rest of the book was going to go. I wrote it about a year and a half before I started to write the rest of the book. I started to realize what the relationship with the sisters might be, and then I just followed the story.
Q. How did you build your characters? There is a wise Chinese man, a bartender, ghosts, a blind girl.
A. I started to discover that as these characters came in they would be like little tributaries off a river and flow back into the story. Once it was clear that’s what was going to happen, I made an effort to create the story of all these characters’ lives.
Q. Is there a specific place on which Roam, the town, is based?
A. I didn’t want it to be specifically in the South, or anywhere. I wanted it to be a completely invented time and place.
Q. Death and redemption seem to be two big themes in this book. Why is that?
A. Many times you don’t know what the book is about until you write it. You go back and look at the story and see what you can do to make it clearer what is going on. Rewrite and clarify.
Q. How did you think of the ending?
A. That’s what was so hard. I went through six different endings. I couldn’t really nail it. It was a year of different endings before I got to that one. You read it and it’s so natural and so right, but it didn’t come that way. But not quitting is what people do who find satisfaction in writing.
Touchstone. 2013, 288 pages, hardback, $24.