What a Shame

One of the great joys of being a voracious reader is discovering a new-to-me talent: a terrific writer capable of creating relatable characters; telling great stories using wonderfully constructed, lyrical prose; and illuminating experiences and lives that are vastly different from my own, using fiction as a method to not only entertain but educate.

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of reading Wanda M. Morris’ impressible debut, All Her Little Secrets, which I raved about in a blog entry. Of course, that was her book from last year, so I was very excited to get my hands on a copy of this year’s Wanda M. Morris novel, Anywhere You Run, and it does not disappoint in any way other than coming to an end.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Wanda earlier this year at Left Coast Crime, and she is as lovely a person as she is as a writer.

All four men passed around a bottle of Jim Beam as they peeled up State Route 19, giddy with excitement about what they’d do once they hog-tied those coons and got them to a tree. The engine revved as they hit the crest of the road, doing 80 mph. Getting pulled over was the least of their concerns because Olen’s cousin, Sheriff Bickford, was riding shotgun. Bickford had gotten a tip and rounded up the other three to head from Jackson over to Meridian and then north to Neshoba County.

Olen, sitting there in the back seat, threw back a swig and passed the bottle on, assuring the others they were doing God’s work. “The last thing anybody needs is for them to start votin’. Bad enough the goddamn government wants us to let ’em eat in our restaurants and sit beside us on a bus. If the Lord has meant for whites to mix with coloreds, he woulda’ made the coloreds a hell of a lot smarter. Either we stay all white or we die amongst ’em.”

A couple of the other men nodded in silent agreement.

Anywhere You Run is, in some ways, a kind of prequel to All Her Little Secrets, in that it gives us the backstory on some of the characters in the first novel. Set in the turbulent 1960’s, during the Civil Rights struggle in the old Confederate states and the resistance to racial equality from the Southern bigots, this may be one of the first novels I’ve ever read to show that time from the perspective of a woman of color? (There was a woman of color point-of-view character in William Bradford Huie’s The Klansman, but I’d need to revisit that book to make a comparison, but I know the visceral sense of being othered, of knowing there is no justice for you in this world and society, wasn’t as strong in the Huie novel as it is in this one.) I’m not going to go out on a limb and claim that as fact, but it is likely–and being Southern, and seeing the South of the time through this lens (remember, I was alive then, too, but my perspective was greatly different), was sobering. Morris brings the time to life with a vivid, powerful brush that makes it very clear what it was like to be a second-class citizen in a system designed to keep you there.

The story focuses on two sisters from Jackson, Mississippi–Violet and Marigold. Their parents are dead, as is their older sister, Rose; the two sisters are very different and on different paths, but they love each other very deeply and have a strong sisterly bond. Marigold has been working at a Civil Rights office in Jackson while having an affair with a married lawyer, come south for the summer to work on voting rights, and finds herself pregnant. SHe’s been seeing a man she doesn’t love, Roger Bonny, and decides to marry him and move north with him to Cleveland, leaving the Jim Crow South far behind her. Violet also wants out of Jackson and the book opens with her running–but for different reasons and in an entirely different situation. Violet was raped by a white man, and knowing there was no justice possible for a woman of color under these circumstances, kills him. She’s also been dating a white man, Dewey Leonard, who claims to be in love with her–and wants to run away with her and marry her in Boston. Violet doesn’t love Dewey, but she sees him as her ticket out of town. As the two of them flee, they are stopped by a cop once they’ve crossed the Alabama state line, and the fact Dewey has to act like she’s in his employ to save them both only convinces her that her plan to run away from Dewey the first chance she gets is the right one. She avails herself of the first opportunity that presents itself–ironically, at the same Birmingham Greyhound station where the freedom riders were attacked by a mob and police dogs–and catches a bus to a nowhere little town in rural Georgia–Chillicothe, which is very important in All Her Little Secrets.

But Dewey isn’t ready to let go of Violet, and hires a white-trash no account to track her down for him. He loves her and wants her back–but probably would be willing to let her go except for the wallet, which contains something that puts both Violet and Marigold’s lives in grave danger.

This is an exceptionally good novel, tightly plotted and highly evocative of the period Morris is writing about. It couldn’t have been easy, researching this painful past that we as a nation should be incredibly ashamed of; no writer is powerful or talented enough to truly bring the totality of the horror that was life for people of color in this country, particularly in the South, to life. But Morris does it beautifully; by focusing on how individual lives were affected and impacted, the implications of how truly horrible this time was on a macro level can easily be extrapolated. There are also slurs, accurate to the time and the characters using them, which are jarring to come across in the present day in the printed word.

But I’ve also heard those words used…not in a very long time, but seeing them in print I can hear them again vividly in my head, dripping with venom and hatred and contempt.

This book is fantastic, absolutely fantastic, and I urge you, Constant Reader, to start reading Wanda M. Morris.

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