The Way We Were

I am both of the South and not of the South.

My people are from Alabama, as we say down here, but I didn’t grow up there. My parents moved north for better opportunities and for a better life for the two of them and their young children, and over the years since I’ve lived all over the country and grew up in vastly different places and cultures than that in which my parents were raised. I kind of have a love/hate relationship with the region; I am both proud of my roots and yet embarrassed and ashamed a bit at the same time. That’s really the thing with being a Southern white man of a certain age; how do you reconcile your family’s history, and the history of where you’re from, when there is so much ugliness and darkness?

Someone told me once I was a coward for never dealing with race in my work, and there was enough truth in that statement to make it sting a bit. Are there things in past works of mine that are problematic? I’ve never gone back to reread them with that in mind–when I do actually force myself to reread them–but I know I am more enlightened now than I was twenty years ago, so it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to realize I wrote something that wouldn’t hold up to present-day scrutiny. But I also know that if someone ever told me I wrote something in the past that was an issue in the present I would listen to their concerns and not get defensive or double-down. I do not set out to upset people or hurt their feelings, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

Which also leads to an ethical question I’ve often debated within my own head about: is it better when someone says something hurtful inadvertently, or if they do it on purpose? If it’s done on purpose, they had to put thought into it, which is bad…but isn’t it just as bad to be hurtful without thinking? To me, that reads as “I dont care enough to think about it” and how is that better?

But this weekend I finished reading Cheryl A. Head’s brilliant stand-alone novel Time’s Undoing, and what a joy it was to read.

Four hours ’til dawn. The single streetlamp at the alleyway splays veiled illumination on the wet pavement. The rumble and squeak of streetcars ended two hours ago, and the in-a-hurry owner of the diner hauls out the last of the garbage, which tumbles onto the slick red bricks as he slams the door.

Cress lifts the collar of his tight-fitting jacket against curly brown hair. Alert. Smoking. Shufting from one leg to the other. Leaning into the shadows every time he hears loud voices from the street.

I can’t feel the rain nor smell it, but I sense its fragrance misxed with the relentless forsythia creeping through every patch of dirt. Anna Kate often remarked that the flowers were her favorite part of living in Birmingham.

A car engine hums louder. Cress metls into the darkness when a blue sedan eases forward and idles under the lamp. The sight of it passes a shiver my body doesn’t recognize. Cress steps forward and drops his smoke, grinding the butt under his boot. He shoves both hands deep into the pockets of his dungarees.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Cheryl years ago at a Saints and Sinners, and shortly thereafter became a voracious reader of her Charlie Mack series. We were both nominated for Anthony Awards for Best Paperback Original at Bouchercon last year (neither of us won) but it was so cool to be sharing the short-list with another queer writer (I don’t think two queer writers have ever been nominated in the same category before, so we might have made some history together there, too) that I am still agog and aglow from the entire experience. Over the past few years while Cheryl was working on this book, we would do panels or readings together (pandemic ZOOM events) and she would talk about it–and every time she did I’d think girl you need to finish this because I want to read the hell out of it, so you can imagine my joy when my copy finally arrived in the mail.

Oh. My. GOD. This. Book. Is. Incredible.

The book was born of fact; Cheryl’s great-grandfather was murdered by a Birmingham cop back in the Jim Crow days, and the truth behind that murder remains a mystery. Cheryl took the family story and wrote a book around it, and it’s powerful and moving and beautifully written and structured. The love and care Cheryl takes with this painful family history and weaving it into a fictional tale with something powerful to say is evident on every page. The book focuses on main character Meghan, from Detroit, who is doing a series for the Detroit Free Press about Black Lives Matter, and how she uses that as a hook into the story of her great-grandfather’s murder, which brings her to modern-day Birmingham to do research and see if she can find the answers her family has never known for almost ninety years.

The story is structured with two time-lines; Meghan’s present-day investigation, and what went on back in 1929.

Time’s Undoing is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a while. It’s brilliantly written, and Meghan is a likable, relatable character that is easy for a reader to connect and engage with, root for, and the 1929 sequences are also strongly rendered; bringing a by-gone age back to vivid and ugly life–but it’s also a story of resilience and recovery, and living with a back-breaking sorrow while still being able to find joy in life.

Cheryl has always been one of our strongest voices, getting better and growing more confident in her talent with each book. Time’s Undoing is going to be one of 2023’s strongest titles and will be making many short-lists when award season rolls around again.

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