By Dennis McFarland
(Henry Holt, 368 pp., $25)
The author will read at
Davis-Kidd Booksellers on May 26 at 6 p.m.
Like biography, historical fiction can enact vigilante justice. In the guise of storytelling, novelists can attack past villains, an especially commendable endeavor if the evil has gone unpunished by law or society. In the case of Dennis McFarland's new novel, set in Virginia's Prince Edward County in the aftermath of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the bad guys have slipped into historical footnotes. Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, McFarland has thrown them back into the limelight to receive their well deserved 39 lashes.
Prince Edward is set in 1959, when the courts have decreed that even the most recalcitrant districts must abide by the Supreme Court's 1954 decision abolishing separate-but-equal schools. McFarland's eponymous south Virginia county opts to shut down all public schools and redirect public funds into a system of whites-only private academies. This maneuver effectively barred blacks from education for four years.
McFarland, an Alabama native, leaves no doubt about his sympathies. He depicts the racist "oligarchy" that perpetrated this injustice as unscrupulous, deluded, backward (even for that time), and hypocritical. Then, in case you missed his point, McFarland inserts speeches that hammer it home. In the most overly explicit such case, one character points out that poor whites "don't want things to change, pure and simple, because the way things are makes everybody feel better about their own sorry lives."
The central character is 10-year-old Ben Rome, youngest son of chicken farmers, who finds himself in the middle of conflicts, political and familial, that he scarcely understands. Each member of his family is living a life of quiet desperation. His roguish brother Al outwardly mouths his redneck father's conformist opinions but secretly spoils for any action their small town can provide, even integration; their sister, Lainie, dreams of the wider world but is ensnared by pregnancy and a loveless marriage; and their mother chokes down regret for not having escaped the country for a more civilized life. Ben is also concerned about his black friend Burghardt, who works for the Romes. Ben tells Burghardt he's lucky not to be going to school in the fall, but Ben knows that it would devastate Burghardt's grandmother, Granny Mays.
Ben is intrigued and repulsed by his adult role models and struggles with his own identity. His father, R.C., compels Ben to suppress any inclination that isn't consistent with his narrow view of what it means to be a man: "[R.C.] had a long list of things he considered sissified: church weddings, cooking, cleaning house, decorating for Christmas, collecting insects, and, most curiously, looking up at the stars. I'd kept hidden from him anything that might be kin to these pursuits, simply because I didn't want him to think me a sissy, and that was before I knew all he meant to imply with the word." Racism isn't the only prejudice operating in R.C. Rome.
Ben determines that the adult world is made up of an elaborate network of secrets, and in order to decipher it he is going to have to study adults when they think no one is watching. He takes to peeking under doorframes and peering through barn planks to observe unguarded adult activities. This spy element recalls another recent Southern child protagonist, Harriet Dufresnes from Donna Tartt's The Little Friend (Knopf, 2002): In both cases, the kids find out that adult malfeasance and perversion extend to behaviors that beggar their pre-adolescent imaginations.
As in all good Southern fiction, depravity in Prince Edward begins at home. In addition to R.C.'s outsized racism and homophobia so intense it amounts to a kind of worldview, Ben's grandfather, Daddy Cary, emerges as the novel's filthiest figure. Ben never finds words to express his suspicions of Daddy Cary, but an early scene in which the 65-year-old widower takes Ben and Burghardt swimming in a creek alerts readers to Daddy Cary's sexual deviance. At water's edge he commands the boys to get naked. When Ben balks at performing the striptease, Daddy Cary plays a sick game with Burghardt, forcing him to leave the water so that Daddy Cary can instruct Ben on the color of African American genitalia. Again, we have no trouble identifying the bad guy.
Despite his lack of subtlety in structuring the racial conflicts, McFarland presents a nuanced picture of the Rome family's intramural discord. To calculate their degree of tension at any time requires multi-variable calculusif Ben and/or Lainie, but not both, are present, and the temperature is above 90, Mother won't speak to Father at dinnerand it is equally hard to pinpoint the sources of their mutual affections, but they seem most authentically human when dealing with one another. McFarland first made his name with The Music Room (Houghton Mifflin, 1990), telling stories about troubled family dynamics, and, while no one would question that Brown vs. the Board of Education merits serious literary treatment, it's impossible not to wonder if McFarland's talents are better suited to the small canvas of domestic disharmony than to the big screen of political upheaval.
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