Sunday, May 13, 2012

Want Some Grits With This Southern Novel?

Let me get this out in the open first: I love southern literature, I love southern writers, and I can’t get enough of books set in the South. So when I heard John Milliken Thompson speak, I knew that I had to be first in line for his novel. I read it the first time when it had just come out and I have to say that I felt a bit bogged down. There seemed to be a lot of characters and descriptions that I could have done without. Two days ago, I picked it up again because it was the only book in my car and I needed something to read. I have to say that my second reading was nothing like my first!! I found the novel to be incredibly compelling, the descriptions placed me right in the action, and the characters were fantastic.

When a young woman is found floating dead in the reservoir, the officials in the sleepy town assume that it is a suicide. Upon closer examination, they find that not only was it a homicide but the young woman was pregnant! The little town goes wild as nearly every resident tramps through the local almshouse to see the body of this mysterious woman.The novel then cuts to Tommie, the murderer, who is the beloved son in his family. As a college-educated, soon to be lawyer, he far surpasses his brother, William, who is kind and gentle but far from scholastic. The story continues to bounce between Tommie, William, and various towns members as the tension builds and Tommie is brought back to the sleepy town where he possibly committed unforgivable acts.

Some have described this novel as a mystery but I believe that to be a misnomer. It’s no more a mystery than “To Kill a Mockingbird” is. Some have described it as a courtroom drama. I also believe this to be false as it is no more a courtroom drama than “Midwives” is. It is, however, an enthralling piece of historical fiction about the post Civil War years. Even more important, it is a story about family, kinship, and community. Tommie’s guilt or innocence is not the driving force of the story. Instead, it is his relationship with his brother, his aunt, and himself that truly make the novel. The fact that the novel was based on an actual case is fascinating but not surprising as Thompson’s descriptions feel so real and almost tangible. In many ways, I reminded me a great deal of “Midwives” in which the driving force of the novel isn’t the character’s guilt or innocence but the overall concept of guilt and innocence and the many ways in which a person can be put on trial.

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