Don Noble
3:52 pm
Mon October 25, 2004

The City of Churches

September of 2003 marked the 40th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing during which four young girls were killed. It is appropriate, then, that this fictionalized account of those days be released at this time, yet is also unfortunate.

The City of Churches

September of 2003 marked the 40th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing during which four young girls were killed. It is appropriate, then, that this fictionalized account of those days be released at this time, yet is also unfortunate.

This material has very recently been covered in nonfiction by Diane McWhorter in Carry Me Home, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Frye Gaillard in Cradle of Freedom, and now Wayne Flynt in Alabama in the Twentieth Century, and in fictional form by Anthony Grooms in his novel Bombingham and of course Sena Jeter Naslund?s magnificent novel Four Spirits. Kenneth Roberts? novel comes amid thick and daunting competition and unfortunately does not altogether measure up.

The concept, as a Hollywooder might put it, is a good one. In 1993, a black preacher returns to a city based on Birmingham. He will take the pulpit in the city where he was an activist in ?63 at the so-called 14th Street Church. Birmingham is not named, but there is a Red Mountain and a Dynamite Hill, so it might as well have been. It seems that Robbins wants to have his historical cake and eat it too.

Also returning to this city are Charles Hornsby, Jr., known as a boy as Chunky Jr., son of Chunky Hornsby, Sr., policeman and racist. Chunky Jr. wants to know what role his father played in the ?63 bombings.

If the novel had taken the shape of a mystery, so to speak, and been truly set in 1993 and truly been an investigation by the two men, one black, one white, into the events of 1963, it might well have worked much better. As it is, Robbins finds 1963 irresistible, and the action keeps returning to and staying in that era.

Writers of historical fiction of the recent past should have our sympathy. Much suspense is unavailable to them. We know that the church will be bombed, and we know that prior to the bombing there will be sit-ins at local department stores, and marches, and that children will finally be used as troops and that there will be dogs and hoses, which will, we are sure, be powerful enough to tear the bark off trees.

Robbins? best hope in these circumstances is in his wholly fictional characters. Ferris Sullivan owns a department store and actually takes down the ?Whites Only? signs. A deacon in the First Baptist Church, he is a decent man and therefore soon to be crushed in the forces at play in his city. Likewise, his preacher, Pastor Luke, would like to integrate the church, but the times won?t allow his decency, and he lacks the courage needed to buck the times.

Roosevelt Mears, who works for the city as a garbage man and repairs discarded appliances, is a successful character. So are his son, Rider, and, mostly, the policeman Chunky Hornsby and his even more vicious partner Jim Cory Smith who, shockingly, is the Chief of Police in 1993.

The characters based on historical figures such as the ?Reverend Doctor,? as he is called, who is arrested and, we are told, sits in his cell writing letters, or the Rev. Franklin Stubblefield (why not just call him Fred Shuttlesworth?) are much less successful and actually generated in this reader some irritation. No further mention is made of the letters the unnamed Rev. Dr. wrote.

The motel that was bombed, the Gaston, called the Whitley here, is allowed to burn to the ground. We are told that in an Alabama town to the South white vigilantes are using the heads and bodies of men, women, and children ?for target practice,? and that twenty had been killed and hundreds wounded. Now Selma was a rough place, but there was not that much carnage.

But this is a novel, you will object: the writer can invent and change all he wants. I agree. The best parts of this novel are invented, and the historical elements, meant to be so powerful and evocative, undermine what might have been a much more impressive performance. The result for an historically knowledgeable reader is a kind of cognitive dissonance.

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