Song of the South

I am a son of the South; Alabama born and bred. Southerners like to think, or believe, that they are different from other Americans; they also believe they are the most patriotic Americans, despite the prevalence of Confederate flags and dedication to preserving memorials to traitors. I was born and grew up during the height of the Civil Rights movement. I remember the day Dr. King was murdered. I grew up amidst racism and segregation–there were no black children in my elementary school in Chicago, and the story was our principal would tell black families trying to enroll their children that the school was at capacity–but would then enroll the children of the next white family to come along. That racism at our school didn’t extend to Hispanics/Latinx; I shared classrooms with kids who were born in Mexico or Central America, whose families had come to the United States and Chicago–where my family moved when I was two–to escape war and poverty. Several of my teachers liked to call attention to the immigrant children in my classes, as examples of the American melting pot, how the country was a country of immigrants, and how our nation’s strength came from the combination of cultures and national identities.

Race has always been an issue in this country since the day the first slave ships arrived; the deadly seeds of poison and discord planted in a nation as yet unborn in the notion that some people are less than others, that owning human beings as though they were cattle was a legitimate enterprise. Slavery almost split the country in two; it took a rebellion and a bloody war to put an end to it…but that war didn’t solve the ultimate problem of slavery because it was never addressed: white supremacy and the belief that the US was a country of white people exclusively for white people. If you weren’t white, you could benefit from being an American but never as much as white Americans. I remember hearing, during the Civil Rights era, that Americans of color should be grateful they were Americans because they were better off as Americans than they would be anywhere else.

Even as a child, this begged the question, but isn’t the point of being American the idea that the next generation is better off than the previous? That the reason our country is great is because we all strive to do better than our parents? Isn’t that what people of color are trying to do?

Race issues in America has always been complex and complicated and nuanced.

I sometimes have wondered if I have failed as a writer by not dealing with issues of race in my books. I told a friend the other day that I will have to go back and reread all of my books to see if I allowed any racist ideas or sentiments to creep into it; even if it’s as little a thing as describing a person of color by their color, and if I fell into the horrific racist tropes of using food or drink to indicate the color of their skin–mocha, chocolate, cinnamon, etc.

Getting inside the head of racists…and people who are involved in the Klan…is something that is difficult for a lot of Americans. The rise of social media and the most recent elections have exposed a lot of people to shocking discoveries about relatives and friends, who harbor racist or at the very least, borderline racist ideologies. I’ve been pushing myself to deal with race and in particular how prevalent in can be in the rural south lately, so I am reading a lot more about it.

Lori Roy, on the other hand, decided to write a novel about it.

gone too long

The truck driving toward our house is black. Lots of cars drive past our house because there’s a good turnaround spot just down the road and the interstate is the other way. Most every car driving past wants to go the other way, and usually they’re in a hurry, but not this truck. It drives slow and it glitters when the sun hits it and the tailgate rattles like pennies in a mason jar. I hear it even though all the windows and doors are closed and locked, have to be. That’s the rule when Mama’s at work and I’m home alone.

The driver, he is a man. One of his arms hangs out the window, and something dangles from his hand. I don’t know what it is, but then he keeps slowing down, almost rolls to a stop, and as soon as he flings that something, I know. It has happened before. If Mama comes home and finds it, she’ll be angry and maybe even cancel her going-out plans for tonight. And if going-out plans are canceled, Julie Anna won’t come.

I wait until the truck rolls past before I slide off the sofa. Making sure no one will hear, I touch my feet down real soft, don’t jump like I sometimes do, and tiptoe to the front door. The lock is stiff and I have to use both hands to turn it. Mama’s big enough, it only takes her one hand to open the door, and someday, that’ll be me. The lock makes a loud click and I freeze. I tru to be quiet because I’m doing wrong and I know it. Someone is always watching, that’s what Mama likes to say, so I guess I’m sneaking so the someone, whoever that someone is, won’t see.

Lori Roy is one of our top crime writers publishing today–she has, over the course of four novels, won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and been nominated for a third. Gone Too Long is her fifth novel, and it, too, is an impressive achievement.

The book opens with the afore-mentioned first person characterization of a young girl named Beth, and the horrific thing that happens to her. She is kidnapped and held hostage in a basement somewhere, after witnessing the murder of her babysitter, Julie Anna. As if that isn’t horrific enough, we also know that it takes place seven years earlier, and that the action of the story is going to flash back and forth in time between the present and the recent past. The modern day character is a damaged young woman with red hair named Imogene, still recovering–through the use of alcohol and meaningless sexual experiences with men selected when she’s drunk–from the deaths of her husband and son in a car accident several years earlier.

Imogene just also happens to be the daughter of a recently deceased high-ranking member of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In the present day, her father has just been buried, and her mother has found a strange wire…and asks Imogene to follow where it leads from their house. She does, comes upon an older house on their property that has been abandoned for years, and finds, in a basement similar to the one where Beth was taken, a young boy who would be about the age her son would be had he not been killed. The discovery of this child–and the discovery that the new Klan leader’s son’s girlfriend has tried to sell two incredibly expensive watches–triggers a series of events and revelations that expose the ugliness of the Klan, the ugliness of human nature, and the ugliness of life in general when your family has been devoted to the Klan for generations.

Gone Too Long is a brilliant read, immense in its scope of human emotions and the nuances of how people can rationalize the irrational, and how that irrationality can lead to the self-justification  of doing the most horrible things to other human beings; yes I know it’s wrong but I didn’t have a choice.

This is an incredibly powerful novel, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Alas, it won’t be available until its actual publication date on June 25th, but it can be pre-ordered, both on-line and from your local independent. Do so; pre-order it now so you can experience what is definitely going to be one of the top crime novels of 2019.

Stunning. Just stunning.

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