The Last Road Home, by Danny Johnson****

thelastroadhomeThe Last Road Home, bold and impressive new fiction by Pushcart Prize nominee Danny Johnson, came to me free thanks to Net Galley and Kensington Books in exchange for an honest review. It tells the story of Raeford “Junebug” Hurley and his friendship with neighboring twins, Fancy and Lightning Stroud. Junebug is Caucasian; the twins are African-American, politely referred to during that time as ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’. The story is set during the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s, but in rural North Carolina, the Klan stands tall and strong and absolutely nothing has changed in terms of race relations. Junebug finds himself riding on the fence rail from hell. This fascinating tale will be available to the public in late July. Those that love good historical fiction should read it.

The book begins with one horrible loss after another. At age 8, Junebug’s parents are both killed in a car wreck, and he goes to live with his grandparents.  His life is pleasant and stable, helping his grandpa run the farm, but then his grandpa dies too. And by the time his grandmother dies, I have decided that the theme of this story must be grief and loss, or given the number of religious references, perhaps there is some sort of Christian redemption theme here. And on both counts, I find I am mistaken. Johnson is a masterful storyteller, and there is nothing simplistic in how this novel unfurls.

For while Junebug has plenty of questions about the religious fervor that pervades small towns of the South during this era, by the time he buries his grandma, he has had it with religion. “The preacher said a prayer, asking the Lord to be with me in this time of grief. I’d had all of God’s shit I could take and didn’t need His sympathy. If he said it was ‘God’s Will’, I might choke him.”

I wanted to stand up and cheer.

At age 15, orphaned and the sole remaining member of his family, he is on his own. “Fifteen was considered adult in farm years.” Lightning leaves home suddenly, unhappy with the limitations placed on Black men in his part of the world. Fancy is left behind, and she is the only friend Junebug has within walking distance of home. As friendship turns to passion, both find themselves occupying a dangerous place in their community. Given that they are cold shouldered simply for appearing in town together to run an errand, the thought of letting their feelings for one another be known is terrifying.  He recalls his grandma’s admonition:

“’Junebug, you need to understand that cruelty and memory have been married together a long time in the South.’”

Johnson does an outstanding job of depicting white neighbors’ responses to the notion that our protagonist is linked romantically with Fancy. At first they are able to maintain the age-old fiction that she is his housekeeper, but she goes home at night, then sneaks back in darkest night to lay beside him. The muted references, little hints given by Caucasian elders nearby to guide the young white farmer away from a liaison that doesn’t fit local expectations, are rendered skillfully. There are a number of really vicious racial epithets tossed casually around by the local landowners, not always even in anger, sometimes in ugly jokes, as this writer knows from childhood experience is the way racists behave when a white supremacist perspective is not something being fought for as an outlier, but rather the dominant, even comfortable, norm. As the book continues, not only anti-Black pejoratives, but also nasty terms regarding Jews and Asians are tossed into the vernacular. None are gratuitous; they are an undeniable part of the setting, which would be revisionist without them.

Fancy and Junebug seem doomed. He tells her, “It feels like my life’s sprung a lot of leaks, and I’m running out of fingers.” She points out that she only has ten fingers too.

I was watching for the pat ending, the comfortable happy fiction that novelists are often drawn toward. Every time I thought I knew where the story was headed, it went somewhere else. Johnson is brilliant at breaking apart stereotypes, making setting real and immediate, and his character development is strong apart from some minor inconsistencies toward the end. And his framework is materialist by and large, showing that our surroundings and role in life shape us in ways we sometimes don’t expect.

Those interested in this period of history or that love excellent fiction should order this book. It will be available to the public July 26, 2016; strongly recommended.

Work Like Any Other, by Virginia Reeves****

worklikeanyotherReeves makes her debut here with a deeply moving, haunting tale of a man that tries to do the right thing and finds his entire life miserably, horribly gone wrong instead. Thank you to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC; this book is available for purchase March 1, 2016.

Roscoe marries Marie, the woman of his dreams, a woman that speaks little but recognizes every bird call in the state of Alabama. When her father dies, he gives up being an electrician, work that he loves, in order to move to the farm they inherit. Unlike his father-in-law, Roscoe’s own father has always looked down on farming as a poor man’s last resort. Roscoe thinks he has found a compromise by bringing electricity, and with it mechanized farm tools, to Marie’s father’s farm; he won’t have to sweat in the fields, and he has found a way to continue doing the work her prefers. Pirating electricity from the lines out on the highway is against the law, but it’s nothing to make a man do hard time. If he is discovered, he’ll pay a fine and the electric company will install a meter. No harm, no foul.

That’s what he thinks, anyway.

Everything goes to hell in the blink of an eye when someone dies grabbing hold of a live wire located on his improvised set up. He is charged with manslaughter; with a halfway decent attorney, he should be able to get the sentence suspended or reduced, since no harm was intended, but Marie chooses not to hire anyone to represent him. She tells the state to give him a court appointed attorney, and instead she pays for an attorney for the man that has assisted him, knowing that the state of Alabama will come down harder on a Black man, a man that has worked for her family since she was a tiny child.

She can afford two attorneys, as we later learn. It isn’t about the money. It’s about blame. It’s about cold, hard vengeance.

We follow Roscoe as he makes his way through the trial, bewildered not to find Marie in the courtroom. We follow him through his years in prison, a system that tells the public it is there to correct bad habits and teach men skills they can use for the future. It’s a cruel, cold lie. And so although Roscoe’s experience is better in some ways than that of Wilson, who is sent to the end of the prison reserved for men of color, his sentence is much longer, with parole denied again and again as Marie fails to advocate for him.

Reeves is a genius with prose. Were I to rate this book solely on her skill as a writer, this would be a five star review, hands down. The kind of lyrical quality shown here is not a thing that can be taught; at some point, the word smithery put to use here is a matter of talent, and Reeves possesses enough for all Alabama.

My sole concern here is credibility. I don’t want to give too much away because you should read this novel, but I have to say that the way the last portion of the book plays out could never, never occur in the Jim Crow heart of Dixie. One could almost imagine some of it occurring in a different way, one closely guarded and unseen by the community, but to have things set up as they are when Roscoe finally gets out of prison and have the local storekeeper be aware of it, regard it as either normal or as private business that is no concern of his, strains credulity beyond the most magical prose. That house and farm would have been burned to the ground. It could never have happened.

Reeves has developed Roscoe’s character with depth and intimacy, and this is the greatest strength of her story; the first 75% of the plot is also well paced, with tension gently building as a story arc is meant to do. But the spell is broken during the last portion by the problem mentioned above.

Reeves is an author likely to go forward and do great things, and this is a strong debut. Apart from the one distraction mentioned, this book is highly recommended to those that love good fiction.

A Painted House, by John Grisham*****

apaintedhouseGrisham has written a wonderfully refreshing book. He is a fine writer, and I think he dwelt a bit too long and too timidly in the familiar swimming hole of the legal thriller. This is a really strong, well-written novel, steeped in the deep South (USA) in the 1950’s. For those of us up north who heard in school that the cotton weevil ended cotton farming soon after the end of the Civil War, Grisham has news. The protagonist and narrator is a seven year old boy named Luke Chandler. He is wise beyond his years, but I bought the premise for two reasons. First, it is discreetly revealed up front that he is academically talented, and so having him able to analyze things that an average 7 year old cannot, becomes believable. Second, he has no siblings, but has been raised in an all-adult household, a big frame house (NOT painted) that somehow houses himself, his parents, and his paternal grandparents. His “buddy” is 12 years older than himself. Uncle Ricky is his father’s younger brother, and is fighting in Korea, and anxiety over his well-being filters in and out of the myriad other anxieties that went with cotton farming. Though the Great Depression officially ended with WWII, small farmers (80 acres plus “the garden”, which is vastly larger than any ordinary suburban garden) in the deep south are living decades behind those in cities. They have water from a pump out front, and an outhouse. There is electricity, convenient but expensive. There is no telephone. The latter is viewed with cheer; it gives neighbors permission to visit one another without advance notice or an appointment, and there is a tacit understanding that this will happen mostly in the off-season. Winters are for rest and hospitality; summers are for work. And they ALL work. The two men haul huge cotton bags along with the workers they’ve hired, and they bring in 100 pounds of cotton off their own backs every blessed day, rising at 4, finishing at dark. It is a grueling existence. The women, including the grandmother, spend less time in the fields due to domestic chores. (There is no washing machine). But once they have cleaned up the breakfast dishes, they too are out in the field, leaving earlier than the men to cook a hearty lunch. There is often a break afterward due to the incredible heat and humidity, but because of the ever-present fear of rain, a very real fear, given that their farm is “bottom land” fronting the river, they are out again as soon as humanly possible. The seven year old, whom modern mothers would be taking for play dates and curling up to read with, is expected to haul 50 pounds of cotton daily also. Interestingly however, despite the family’s immense debt burden, he is paid the same wage as the other workers, and may dispense with the money as he sees fit. The two most striking features of this time, place, and way of living that struck me were the stratification of classes and subclasses, and for all the hail-well-met hospitality, a deep sense of privacy, and the need to keep secrets. At first, our young protagonist is weighted with one or two sworn secrets, and they are fairly benign. Later, however, he is beset by some whoppers, ones that could cost someone a life. Beyond this point are spoilers. If you have not read the book and think you may want to, stop here. If you have read it and want to compare notes, keep going.

The social levels are deep and intrenched. The most respected are the small business owners in town, preachers, and the farmers who own land, no matter how heavily indebted they may be. Those next were families like our protagonists, renters. Again, their debt level might be heavy, their clothing worn and not abundant, but they could hold their heads high, be church deacons, and be well regarded socially. After that, there is a large drop. On a similar social par, yet treated differently to an extent, are the hill people (very rarely are they referred to as “hillbillies”) who come down to pick cotton for a summer wage. They are not respected, but they are treated with a certain level of deference, nevertheless, because if they leave, the cotton may not all get harvested, and it is essential that every possible bole be brought from the immense cotton bushes to the truck. Workers are paid according to the amount they pick in weight. They can get away with a certain amount of disrespectful talk and obnoxious behavior because it will be hard to replace them once harvest season has begun.

On a social par with hill people, but considered more of a community responsibility, are the sharecroppers. Sharecroppers are considered to be above Mexicans only. (There do not appear to be Black people, at the time referred to as ‘Negroes’, in this town or its surrounding community). One does not interact socially with them; they are wage-slaves, forced to give most of their crop to the landowner, and often suffering from malnutrition. They are described as thin and dirty. They are so demoralized that no real attempt is made to teach their children manners, and any discipline meted out is so extreme that it would earn them a trip from a social worker today (assuming someone told; it might be the local “secret”, though nothing to that effect is said; it is considered typical sharecropper behavior). It is considered “Christian duty” to feed extra vegetables from the garden to the sharecropper’s family, and the giving is done in such a way as to protect, to the extent possible, the pride of the recipients.

The local sheriff, known as Stick, has no respect from anyone. This appears to be because he DOES NOT WORK. The work ethic in this town goes wide and deep. While respectable people are in the fields breaking their backs from sun-up till sundown, the sheriff “takes naps in that patrol car” and comes around “nosing into things” when a crime has been committed. In point of fact, two murders take place more or less under his nose, and no one, not ANYONE will give him the full story. Luke is witness to both murders. They are SECRETS. Later, when he finally confides in his grandfather at a time when knowing the facts will not mean economic ruin for the family, he is told that he “did the right thing” in keeping his mouth closed. “Are you gonna tell Gran?” he asks his grandpa. “Nope.”

Mexicans, even those who have far better manners and are far more tidy when they depart the Chandler farm, who do as they are told (with one singular exception, and even he was sorely provoked) are on the bottom of the social heap, and racism is not veiled, it is right out there in the open. “The Mexicans” are provided for well, just as the hill people are. They are given lodgings in the barn, and Kathleen, Luke’s mother, has been campaigning for them to be brought in for picking season in a bus, not heaped on the back of trucks where they will become parched and sunburned. She puts out quilts and pillows in the well-swept loft, and takes them big baskets of vegetables “that they like” from her garden, and introduces these as part of the wage package, so that they will not feel they are accepting charity; her decency is above that of most white folks. But they are Mexicans, and when one of the hill people, a 17-year-old named Tally who has told Luke she’d like to go north and never pick cotton and see real snow, runs away to marry one of them, the whole Chandler family feels sorrow for the degradation to which the hill people have been submitted. The hill people’s head of household even suggests his daughter has been kidnapped, until a letter is found from his daughter, at which point the pretense implodes and the reality, that his daughter genuinely fell in love with someone with dark skin, is laid bare. The word “humiliation” is used repeatedly.

The hill people, though they work for a wage and are poorly clad, actually enjoy a higher standard of living than the farmers do. One of them, Hank, who bullies young Luke in unconscionable ways that he keeps “secret” so his father will not have to dismiss him and lose the whole family’s labor, brags endlessly about how his family has a car and a painted house. It is the disabled family member who takes pity on them, and together with funds earned by Tally, secretly begins to paint their house white.

Kathleen Chandler accompanies Gran more than usual to visit the sharecropping Latcher family with vegetables these days. They have been enlisted by the local church ladies, who want to know the Latchers’ secret. It is rumored that their fifteen year old daughter has become pregnant, and as the Latchers’ nearest neighbors, they have been deputized to learn the truth. Gossip is not viewed as unchristian, but is almost the only form of recreation available in this insular community. But the girl is kept deep inside the house, and Darla,the Latcher family’s mother, is lightning-quick at greeting them on the porch so that they can’t come inside. Ultimately, the secret is made manifest when the truth of Libby’s pregnancy is doubled with another, closer-to-home truth: Ricky, the 19-year-old who is away fighting in Korea, is the baby’s father. It is of course only Libby’s word…except for the fact that both Chandler women say that the baby boy looks just like Ricky. Again, Luke forsees humiliation and public shunning as real possibilities. NO ONE is supposed to even socialize with a sharecropping family unless they, too, are sharecroppers.

Then there is the house. It had been secretly painted in a back corner. About half the farmers had painted houses and half did not, so until now, having an unpainted house meant no embarrassment locally. Now, however, a house that is partly painted is just not acceptable. Because rain has ruined the crop and left his parents destitute, Luke gives up his dream of a Cardinals jacket to wear to school when it starts close to Christmas, and instead invests his own money in paint and brushes. Once more, Tally kicks in and buys more too, and hill people, Chandlers, and Mexicans all paint 3 sides of the family home. The Mexicans display gratitude this way because they know other farm families do not always show respect by offering bedding, clean sleeping quarters, a fan, and vegetables. They can’t pick because the crops are flooded, and while Eli Chandler, the patriarch, seeks employment for them elsewhere, they burn off the boredom by helping Luke, side by side. He begins to perceive that the Mexicans are real people.

Later, when the rains come harder, the Latchers are in danger of drowning. Eli and Luke’s father take him with them to rescue all eleven Latchers, and temporarily house them in the barn. Though Gran insists that they have enough to feed everyone in their own family and the Latchers too for the next 6 months, Luke isn’t so sure. Gran is doubling the food in her mind, but the Latchers have twice as many family members, including Ricky’s baby, who will only stop crying for the ultimate, unheard of luxury of store-bought vanilla ice cream.

Kathleen Chandler, the mama, has the final word, at least when it comes to Luke’s future. All along, she has told him he will NOT become a farmer. She has shared the home and kitchen of her in-laws with decency and grace for seven years or more; one year, Luke’s father went north to Flint, Michigan and worked in an auto plant long enough to cover all or most of the debt incurred, and then brought it home. Kathleen has gone to work on her husband. She wants to go to Michigan, for him to go to work in the plant (where his obnoxious but helpful brother has a job waiting for him), and leave the cotton fields, the dirt, and the poverty behind forever. They will have indoor plumbing, drive a car (“unheard of” in their tiny community, where everyone owns a truck for farming), and maybe even have a television set. And this is the most fascinating to me of all: ultimately, the second-most powerless person on the surface, after Luke only, is the one who determines her family’s fate. In the home of her in-laws, she has little to say and is occasionally overruled even in the discipline of her own child (though she usually prevails in that venue, as well as the vegetable garden, which will keep Gran, Grandpa and the Latcher family from starvation after they leave for Michigan). In the end, Luke states, the “final word” in what will happen to his smaller family–himself, his father, his pregnant mother (but that’s a secret)–will be up to his mother. His mother is the one who persuades his father that the time to break loose has come. They leave behind a painted house, with only a few boards at the top left undone when the paint and money ran out. His grandparents promise that when he “comes home”, those boards will be white, but Luke understands that he will never live in the painted house in the Arkansas hinterland again.