Jacob Tracy has been hiding his light under a bushel for eighteen years. Ever since he was nearly killed at the Battle of Antietam, he can see ghosts and demons and feel with things aren’t right. But every time he tells someone about his curse, they die within a month. So, Tracy keeps his mouth shut and does his best to ignore the uncanny things that are going on around him. The Curse of Jacob Tracy, by Holly Messinger, begins in the spring of 1880, when Jacob and his partner, Boz, take a job for the mysterious Miss Fairweather. Before the end of the summer, Tracy’s life is turned completely on its head.
The Curse of Jacob Tracy is split into five parts, each detailing a separate assignment Tracy takes on for Miss Fairweather. Tracy and Boz usually hire on as trail guides or odd-job workers. Miss Fairweather’s first assignment for them seems like just another fetch-and-carry task, but it rapidly becomes clear when Tracy and Boz arrive to pick up Fairweather’s property at a bar/brothel in Missouri that the job is anything but simple. After dealing with vengeful ghosts, Tracy returns to St. Louis in a fury. It seems that the job was Fairweather’s attempt to reintroduce Tracy into the world of the supernatural. Someone is coming for Tracy’s gift and only a lightning-fast education can save him.
The next four parts of the novel follow a similar pattern. Tracy and Boz take on a job with supernatural complications for Fairweather while Tracy learns to set aside his fears and emotional baggage and learn from his new boss. All of the sections could stand on their own, but the plots all circle around the larger conflict with Fairweather and Tracy’s nemesis, a Russian mesmerist who is conducting terrible experiments across the American West.
I loved everything about The Curse of Jacob Tracy: the mashup of horror and western, the structure, the characterization. Blending the horror and western genres is a brilliant move because mashing them up let’s the author feature their good parts (living on the edge of normal society, the need for characters to take care of themselves because no one else will) and quash the bad (cliches, mainly). The structure of The Curse of Jacob Tracy helps introduce a lot of information about Tracy’s world without bogging down the plot. This book has so much going for it that, as soon as I finished it, I wanted to text all my bookish friends and tell them to read it immediately.
The characterization, however, is the best thing about the book. Aside from Messinger’s portrait of a veteran with more than the usual burdens to carry, which is fantastic, this book contains an amazing depictions of pride and friendship in Fairweather and Boz. Fairweather has been fighting her fight for years before Tracy meets her. She’s unwilling to reveal too much, but she needs Tracy on her side if she’s to have a chance to cure her spiritual affliction. Both are proud people, and their association with each other is anything but smooth. It takes them a long time to trust each other. Boz is Tracy’s staunch ally through most of the book. He’s there, saving Tracy’s life, whenever the man gets in over his head (which happens in nearly every section). Boz is none to sure about Fairweather, not only because of her secrecy but because he lost his wife and daughter to a “Voudou queen” in New Orleans years before. Not only does Boz have to deal with Tracy’s weird quests, he also has to navigate the pervasive racism of post-Civil War America as a black man. The friendship between Boz and Tracy is so well done, so nuanced, that it’s frankly stunning.