A sweeping, eerily resonant epic of race and violence in the Jim Crow South: a lyrical and emotionally devastating masterpiece from Charlie Smith, whom the New York Public Library has said "may be America's most bewitching stylist alive."
Delvin Walker is just a boy when his mother flees their home in the Red Row section of Chattanooga, accused of killing a white man. Taken in by Cornelius Oliver, proprietor of the town's leading Negro funeral home, he discovers the art of caring for the aggrieved, the promise of transcendence in the written word, and a rare peace in a hostile world. Yet tragedy visits them near daily, and after a series of devastating events - a lynching, a church burning - Delvin fears being accused of murdering a local white boy and leaves town.
Haunted by his mother's disappearance, Delvin rides the rails, meets fellow travelers, falls in love, and sees an America sliding into the Great Depression. But before his hopes for life and love can be realized, he and a group of other young men are falsely charged with the rape of two white women, and shackled to a system of enslavement masquerading as justice. As he is pushed deeper into the darkness of imprisonment, his resolve to escape burns only more brightly, until in a last spasm of flight, in a white heat of terror, he is called to choose his fate.
In language both intimate and lyrical, novelist and poet Charlie Smith conjures a fresh and complex portrait of the South of the 1920s and '30s in all its brutal humanity - and the astonishing endurance of one battered young man, his consciousness "an accumulation of breached and disordered living ... hopes packed hard into sprung joints," who lives past and through it all.
He was born on the shaded back porch of the board and batten house, cabin really, that smelled in every room of pork fat and greens and of Miss Mamie's Coconut Oil Soap hi mother used to wash down the floorboards. The back porch because that was as far as his mother got on the hot July day in 1913 exactly fifty years after the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a day uncelebrated in Chattanooga. His mother, Capable Florence, called Cappie, a good-time gal who worked sometimes as a domestic but hated the work and made most of her money processing one of the back rooms at the Emporiumformer slave quarters of the old grocery exchange, then a cookshop and hotel for negro folks passing through Chattanooga, and now the city's main brothelin a big narrow vestibule divided by curtains into a half dozen smaller rooms that could be rented for two dollars an hour.
When her water broke as she was coming through the backyard carrying a sack of oranges...
Nearly every paragraph in the book is a work of art and on a page-by-page basis I am utterly in awe of this author's writing. Unfortunately it becomes too much of a good thing relatively early on. Smith's descriptions are lush but extensive; they seem to go on forever and bog down Delvin's story considerably, giving the narrative a plodding, elegiac tone. I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of the heart of the racial divide that continues to affect us (the United States in particular) to this day. While the book may be slow-going, readers who appreciate a well-crafted novel will almost certainly find that it's worth the time.
(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).
Full Review (904 words).
In Ginny Gall, the main character is an avid reader who aspires to be much like the black authors he admires. A few early African Americans writers are listed below.
Top, from left to right: James Weldon Johnson, Harriet Wilson, William Wells Brown
Bottom, from left to right: Jessie Fauset,W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar
William Wells Brown (1814 – 1884) was an author, journalist and playwright. An escaped slave from Kentucky, Brown published his autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave in 1847. The book, which highlighted the disconnect between Christian tenants and the actions of white slaveholders, became a bestseller across the United States and launched his career as an abolitionist ...
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