Young Hiram is a delightful, fun-loving father; but he is on the road most of the time and Anise retreats into books and religion and the pursuit of household perfection. Hiram's contracting business fails and he becomes a roughneck in the Louisiana oil fields, then a wildcatter based in Dalhart, Tex. As the narrator tries to put herself into Hiram's mind, she falls into what is the greatest stylistic fault in this novel, that exalted, overwritten prose: "The ground there cradled its secret, the black blood beating in his ears like a tempest. The earth was dry, for as far as he could see--but underneath the surface was an unlit sea, a crouching surf of living green oil that swayed and tilted with the earth's rotation, the oily drops flowing through the veins of the caverns beneath him like a pulse."
Oil is the promise in this story; but Hiram's lot was dry holes. Oddly enough, Anise's father, Big Joe Frankell, leaves his kin a fat oil well that can support all of them in good style. But after Anise dies the long death of cancer, Hiram tries to cheat his daughters out of their inheritance.
Amelia won't stand for it. Hiram's willfulness and greed bring the family he has sired and loved down in ruins. He will die a bitter and heart-broken old man. And Amelia's daughter, the narrator, will be plagued by guilt. Torn between loyalty to her parents and to her grandfather, she will be forced to desert Hiram--the one she loves above all else. She will wonder if her desertion killed him.
But most important, most true, is the narrator's first-person story of a little girl in love with an old man. Sir was a legendary horseman, and he taught the narrator to ride. He'd put her on a skittish horse, smack the horse a good one on the rump, and see what happened next. "He gave me gifts silently, like a lover," the narrator remembers. "He gave me spurs in a box, wrapped in white tissue. They were silver arcs, with a star that spun." She remembers the breakfasts she ate with Sir--Raisin Bran and toast with peanut-butter, the toast burned black by grandmother Anise.
And she remembers a day when she was 12 and found Sir in his bedroom stripped to his underwear. "I could see what he couldn't. The crumplings of the skin, the hairless, sunken chest, the bony shoulders . . . I went into the pale blue bathroom and vomited with fear. He had always promised me that he would live forever."
What touches us in this novel is not the melodrama or the tall tales, not the dreamscapes and romantic ghosts, certainly not places like Dallas, which we never see clearly. What moves the reader and redeems the story is the love and fear of a child. A love that wants to keep death at bay by creating a fairy-tale myth. A love that causes a grown woman to attempt to keep the promise no Sir could ever keep.