The Johnson Place: A Rappahannock County Story
by James Willis
Authors' Tranquility Press

"If land could speak, it might tell us its story. Since it can’t, its story must depend on man, and man’s memory is poor."

Based on an actual case, the narrative covers two centuries of history highlighting Rappahannock County, Virginia, and the coveted Johnson farm boasting over 300 acres. Capturing the progression of the Johnson family, including James Johnson’s personal ambitions, the work sheds light on the life and times of the era through the depiction of one individual’s story. Featuring an abundance of family secrets and moral dilemmas, the plot unravels at breakneck speed, delivering constant action mixed in with a steady dose of character development, particularly in the morality department.

Willis’ knack for integrating several sub-storylines within the main one is fully displayed throughout the novel. In the opening scene, Johnson, who is working for Master “Extra Billy” Smith, ponders how he will get his family farm given the fierce opposition from his two brothers and seven sisters that he deserted to make his way in life. It was a telltale sign of the times that residents were shocked that Johnson, a thirty-one-year-old bachelor who was generally perceived as incredibly handsome and a fine catch, had still not gotten hitched. A casual conversation between Johnson and a friend leads him to a “spinster,” Allice Dulin. This moment spearheads the storyline of the entire novel, with Johnson aiming to marry Dulin (and her fortune) in order to ultimately purchase the Johnson Place.

The story moves smoothly, transporting readers seamlessly from the accidental hunting tragedy with Johnson’s father, William “Cumberland” Marshall, to Johnson’s courtship of Allice Dulin and the ensuing conflicts. In particular, the blossoming youth of Mary Elizabeth “Mollie” Shreve, Dulin’s niece, catches Johnson’s unrelenting gaze, and he never seems to truly let go. This is best evidenced in arguably the most poignant scene where Allice and James are caught up in an intimate moment yet oblivious to Mollie’s presence.

As the story progresses, three primary plotlines are interwoven: James and Allice’s married life, with their growing family; Mollie’s reentry into the Johnsons’ life after six years; and the contested efforts to secure the Johnson Place as James’ own. The hard work on the farm is nothing compared to the depth of secrets that the characters harbor, the reality of them being integral to understanding the true intentions of various characters. Unquestionably, Johnson lusted after Mollie. However, there are numerous scenes where Allice and Mollie engage in heated conversation as to the merits of James’ fidelity. When Mollie is forced to return to her home by her father, the series of letters between James and Mollie are revealing, sharing the intense pressure and spotlight placed on their illicit relationship.

The section delving into Johnson’s trial for the murder of his wife is prominent, yet digging deeper in order to understand the motivations and circumstances is intriguing. To see how a life crumbles in an inferno of lust is tragic. From this narrative, audiences become privy to the tumult tied to the Johnson Place, culminating in Johnson's hanging. The main players—James, Allice, and Mollie—are intricately tied to the farm. Nevertheless, the story of the Johnson Place withstands the trauma inflicted upon it, and the farm finds its own rejuvenation over the next hundred years. Overall, the fusion of truth and historical fiction, in conjunction with a well-flowing plotline and characters constantly finding themselves in a morally gray area, creates a dynamic read.

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