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WRONGFUL DEATHS
By WILLIAM WHARTON (Granta; 1994)

In August of 1988 the late novelist/painter William Wharton’s grown daughter Kate, her husband Bert and their two infant children were all killed in a horrific car crash. The accident occurred when smoke from a burning field blanketed an Oregon highway, causing a 23 vehicle pile-up in which Wharton’s loved ones were trapped in their vehicle and burned to death.

     Field burning is a controversial practice that’s apparently unique to Oregon, in which farmers burn their fields to rid them of pollutants. Wharton attempted to stop field burning in the wake of his family’s deaths, and, as related here, ended up facing a thoroughly corrupt legal system that did its best to sweep the accident under the rug.

     This “documentary novel” tells the tragic story of Kate and Bert’s deaths, and William Wharton’s subsequent struggle for justice. It’s every bit as eccentric as you might expect from the author of celebrated oddities like BIRDY and FRANKY FURBO. WRONGFUL DEATHS (published in U.S. as EVER AFTER) is reminiscent, by turns, of THE LOVELY BONES and David Morrell’s FIREFLIES (a nonfiction account of the untimely death of the author’s teenage son), but it’s ultimately far stranger than either.

     In these pages Wharton claims his deceased daughter and son-in-law paid him a dream-visit in which they asked him to bring those responsible for their deaths to justice, thus inspiring his anti-field burning crusade. Even odder is the book’s quasi-fictional opening third, related from Wharton’s deceased daughter’s first person point of view. That is to say that Kate narrates the particulars of her aimless adulthood, unsuccessful first marriage and eventual blissful union with Bert, complete with observations about the afterworld in which she currently finds herself. I’m not sure how well this “novelistic projection” works, or if I buy Wharton’s I-see-dead-people claim (he gives fair warning early on that those desiring “truth” are in for a rough ride), but damned if he doesn’t know how to relate a truly gut-wrenching story and keep the reader turning the pages.  

     

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