Posts Tagged ‘deep south’


Scottsboro is fact based fiction. It tells the story of the nine Scottsboro boys – nine young black men who were wrongfully convicted several times over, of raping two young women on a train in the American south in 1931. The colour of their skin ensured their guilty verdict, even when one of the girls retracted her statement and admitted that they had both lied about the rape.

The main narrator of the book is a (fictional) journalist named Alice Whittier, who covers the trial and tries to help in seeking justice for the boys. Parts are also narrated by Ruby Bates, the girl who admitted that she and her accomplice Victoria Price, had lied about being raped.

I think it is a skilful piece of writing, expertly blending fact and fiction. It will make you outraged at the absolutely blatant racism against the young men, (and also at the blatant sexism against the women in the story). It’s very eloquently written and I found it easy to lose myself in the pages, and hard to put the book down at times. However, while I could certainly see the usefulness of Alice as a character – her job entitles her to sit in the court while the trials were taking place, and to get to know Ruby and the nine Scottsboro boys – I did feel that unnecessary details about Alice’s personal life intruded somewhat. Of course people want a well rounded character, but certain events which she wrote about, just stalled the narrative.

However, anyone who is interested in civil rights and how they can be denied based solely on the colour of one’s skin (and this is not something that should come as a surprise to anyone) could do worse than read this book. I would recommend.

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This was John Grisham’s first novel, and also the first of his which I have read, although I have seen a number of films based on his works (including the adaptation of this book).

Carl Lee Hailey – a black man living in Clanton, Ford County, Mississippi – finds out that his daughter has been raped by two white men, and murders the rapists in revenge. He stands trial for murder and is represented by young lawyer Jake Brigance. The county is fiercely divided between those who think Carl Lee’s actions were justified and he should be acquitted, and those who think he should face capital punishment for what he did. The Ku Klux Klan are determined that Carl Lee must hang and embark on a campaign of harassment and intimidation. Soon the sleepy Ford County is divided into two sides, both willing to go to any lengths to win this war.

I can see why Grisham is such a popular writer – his story flows easily and this is one of those books where you pick it up with the intention of reading a few pages and hours later you’re still reading. I am unsure of my feelings regarding Jake – I was ‘on his side’ re Carl Lee, but his politics in general put me off him somewhat. I did however like the characters of Lucien Wilbanks – Jake’s mentor, an alcoholic but a smart man, and Harry Rex, another lawyer who helps Jake.

Some of the scenes were disturbing, especially those regarding the KKK, and there is prolific use of the n word, which I found extremely jarring. But the story itself was gripping, and I would definitely read more by John Grisham.

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In the mid-1960s, Lily Owens is 14 years old, and lives with her unforgiving and remote father on a peach farm in South Carolina.  Lily has grown up with the knowledge that when she was 4 years old, she accidentally killed her mother.  Lonely and sad, her only friend is the black maid Rosaleen.

When racial tension explodes into ugly violence, Lily and Rosaleen run away, and end up at a home in Tiburon, where they stay with three sisters, August, June and May, who keep bees, and make and sell honey.  As Lily grows to enjoy her new life, she learns not only about keeping bees, but also lessons about life, and her own past.

I really enjoyed this book, although there were some aspects of it which could have put me off.  The story is narrated by Lily, and the author’s ability to speak in a child’s voice is astounding and entirely convincing.  Lily is honest – sometimes painfully so, and to her own detriment – but she is a very believable character.  I also thought that Rosaleen was an excellent character, combining pride and honesty with a humorous lack of decorum that makes Lily (and sometimes me) wince.

August – the sister who is the driving force behind the honey making business – is a very likeable person, but perhaps just a little too perfect, although this is counterbalanced somewhat by her angry sister June, and her emotionally unbalanced sister May.

The book balances moments of tragedy and anger, with times of friendship and joy, and all of it was captivating reading.

However, the book does have a number of cliches running through it.  The Daughters of Mary group – a set of (mainly) women who come to worship at August’s makeshift church seem very stereotypical, and I had a job distinguishing the characters in the group from each other.  Also, Lily’s father T. Ray, is very one-dimensional…he’s cruel and without redemption, although a slight effort is made to explain his behaviour.

The book only really scratches the surface of racial tension and ugly bigotry that happened in the era described, but as the book is told from a naive child’s point of view, this is understandable. (This book cannot begin to compare to the child’s narrative in the excellent To Kill A Mockingbird, although I cannot help wondering whether this book was in any part inspired by that particular classic.)  There was also a strong religious thread running through the book.  Although I am not religious, this did not bother me, but it may bother other readers.

Despite the flaws though, this is an enjoyable and easy to read story of a young girl’s awakening, and I would certainly recommend it.  I would definitely be interested in reading more by Sue Monk Kidd.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This is John Grisham’s collection of short stories, all of which are set in America’s Deep South, in the fictional Ford County.

There are seven stories in the collection, and they are by turns, touching, funny and insightful. 

The book starts off with ‘Blood Drive’ – an amusing tale about three hapless men on a mercy dash to Memphis.  Unfortunately there are a number of distractions along the way!  This story was very entertaining and made me laugh on a number of occasions.

The second story is ‘Fetching Raymond’, about two brothers who take their mother to see her third son in prison.  Raymond is intelligent and manipulative, but whether his guile will help him now, remains to be seen.  This was one of my favourite stories in the collection; Raymond made for an irritating, exasperating but ultimately pathetic character.

‘Fish Files’ tells the tale of a small town lawyer who suddenly sees a chance to make big money and escape his humdrum life.  An interesting tale which ended up very differently to how I had expected.

The fourth story is ‘Casino’ and is about a man who learns the intricacies of gambling in order to ease his broken heart and gain revenge.  This was the one story in the whole collection which didn’t really work for me.  I did feel that a knowledge of casinos and how certain card games were played would have helped.

‘Michael’s Room’ describes the ordeal of a lawyer who is forcedby gunpoint to see the results of his legal wrangling in a case years earlier, where he was able to deny a family with a disable son, the compensation which they so obviously deserved.  It was a thought provoking story, with an abrupt end – I would actually have liked to see how the tale progressed beyond the short story.

‘Quiet Haven’ is about a conman working in an old people’s home.  Despite his intentions, he is one of the only person to show compassion and tenderness towards some of the people in his care, and it was hard not to like (or at least have some respect for) him, although he made no attempt to hide his less-than-pure actions from the reader.

The final story in the collection was also my favourite.  ‘Funny Boy’, set in the late 1980s in Ford County, describes how a young man with AIDS returns to his home town after living in San Francisco and New York.  He has come home to die, but despite his illness, people in Clanton, Ford County are largely unsympathetic, due to both his homosexuality and his illness.  Lack of understanding about AIDS is demonstrated in the way people refuse to shake his hand, or refuse to even touch anything which he has touched (it’s worth remembering that in the late 1980s, AIDS was a relatively newly discovered condition and there was far less understanding of it than there is now).  However, he does form one connection of sorts with an elderly black lady namd Emporia who agrees to look after him in the hope of securing her own home as payment.  This story made me both angry (at the attitude of people towards Adrian and his condition) and sad.

It’s easy to see why John Grisham has sold as many books as he has.  He simply tells a great story in an engaging fashion, and it’s easy to lose yourself in one of his books for a few hours.  Short stories don’t always hold the reader’s attention in the same way as a full length novels – there is less time to devote to characterisation and twists and turns – but these stories were very enjoyable.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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In 1959, white Texan John Howard Griffin used a combination of medication and skin dye to turn his skin black, and then travelled through the Southern States as a black man, to see for himself how he would be treated by people there. This book is his diary of his journey and his experiences.

It makes for uncomfortable reading at times.  This was a time when segregation was still very much a reality – and in fact the expected norm – in certain states. Black people could not use many of the cafes and public toilets which white people used, and always sat at the back when using public transport.  What is equally disturbing is the contempt with which strangers treat people on the sole basis of the colour of their skin.  In one incident for example, a bus stops for ten minutes and while all the white people are let off to use the bathroom, the black people are prevented from getting off, seemingly for no reason other than to make them uncomfortable and to show that they are considered second class citizens.

Most people are well aware of how segregated the deep south was at the time of the writing of this book, but here we see it from a personal standpoint. Griffin knows that in all ways except for the colour of his skin, he is still the same person he has always been…but where he has previously been treated with courtesy and respect by fellow white people, now he is feared and distrusted.

Also disturbing is the description of the repercussions of the experiment which he and his family suffered after his experiment was over and people found out what he had done.

Griffin examines how people who don’t consider themselves to be racist do in fact show themselves to be exactly that in their speech and mannerisms, although in the interest of fairness and truth, he also details incidents of kindness and kinship shown to him by both black and white people.

The book was easy to read – the writing flowed and never got boring – at less than 200 pages, it didn’t have chance to. However, there were times when I felt that the author was second guessing what people were thinking.  In one part, a young man is abusive to him, but his insults are never related to colour. Griffin presumes that this would not have happened if he were white, but the truth is that he and we cannot know whether this is correct or not.  Other than this though, it is an interesting book which held my attention.

It was written just over 50 years ago, and therefore feels somewhat dated. The segregation laws described no longer exist – thank goodness – and people are more enlightened.  However, there is no doubt that racism still exists, and this is one man’s account of his personal experience of it.  It may not teach us anything we didn’t already know, but it is certainly interesting and disturbing reading.

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This story is set in the deep American south, and the narrator (through a series of letters to God and her sister) is Celie, a poor black girl who is raped by her mother’s husband and has her two children taken away.  She is later forced into an unhappy marriage and separated from her beloved sister Nettie.  Life is hard for Celie, and then she meets Shug Avery, a strong woman who shows Celie that she can take control of her destiny, and that she has unrealised strength.

This is a wonderful and moving book.  Celie’s story is heartbreaking in itself, but as well as centering on her personal life, the story also explores the treatment of black people in the South at that time, and, through a series of letters from Nettie, the exploitation of certain tribes in Africa.

Celie’s written English is understandably poor, and often in books, this irritates me, but in this case it really didn’t.  Had Celie been able to write perfect English, it would not have seemed believeable.  The difference between her and Nettie’s lives is shown in Nettie’s considerably more eloquent letters to Celie.

There are a number of characters who feature prominently in the book, and each and every one of them is entirely believable and well depicted.  The author demonstrates through Celie’s letters why certain characters behave in a certain way, and resists judging them – instead showing how good people do bad things sometimes and vice versa.

Celie is a character who I really cared about during the reading of the book and she will stay with me for a long time.  More than anything, this is a book that made me think – and that is never a bad thing.

A recommended read.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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