There is a tangible undercurrent of sadness throughout Wormwood, the latest China Bayles novel by Susan Wittig Albert. Recovering from a personal tragedy, China travels to the touristy Mount Zion, where her plan to help a friend teach herbal workshops is sidetracked by a series of mishaps plaguing the restored Kentucky Shaker village. When a shocking murder occurs, her search to uncover the village's secrets leads to a second tale of deception, betrayal, and murder set in the village's end days, and told through the use of letters, journal entries, and newspaper clippings.
The deceptively Eden-like existence of the Shakers is stripped bare in Wormwood and the message that emerges is that good people will always be hurt by forces they can't control. It makes for compelling reading, especially when told through the voices of two devout Shaker sisters from the past. At times the narrative is cluttered with details that reveal the author's extensive research, but do little to move the story forward; but Albert is brilliant at turning the "present mimics past" structure upside down and interweaving the two times and places. Readers are kept guessing throughout about who is sabotaging the village, both present and past and who committed the murders. Author Susan Wittig Albert also pens the Beatrix Potter mysteries.