“Eden Rise: A Novel”
Author: Robert J. Norrell
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Pages: 288 pp.
Price: $27.95 (Cloth)
Robert J. “Jeff” Norrell is already well known to students of Southern Studies. Norrell, who taught at UA and is now professor of history at the University of Tennessee, has won acclaim with books on Booker T. Washington, the civil rights movement in Tuskegee, several volumes on the history of the state of Alabama, race relations in America in the twentieth century and half a dozen others.
Norrell really knows the subject, having done the research and ascertained the facts, and the best historians are good story-tellers.
Both these qualities are brought to bear in his first novel, “Eden Rise.”
When the novel opens it is 1994. Tom McKee has been approached by Randy Russell, a young, new, idealistic U.S. Attorney in Birmingham who wants to retry a murder case from 1965, using the civil rights legislation. Tom had witnessed the murder of his black friend Jackie Herndon, visiting Alabama to work in a Freedom School, at the hands of Buford Kyle, now 78, who had been acquitted by an all-white jury in 1965. Readers will be reminded of the 1965 shotgun killing of Jonathan Daniels in Hayneville, at the door of a country store.
Tom, a lawyer himself, is at first skeptical. He tells Russell: “You understand that these trials are just a quick fix for liberal guilt?”
These trials, he feels, are “a way for blacks and whites to avoid dealing with the serious human relations problems we [face] in the 1990’s—failing schools and the indifference to them, drugs and crime, black kids growing up virtually without parenting, smug whites isolated in suburbs like mine.”
Tom also has personal reasons. Jackie’s murder occurred partly as a result of Tom’s own perhaps unforgivably obtuse innocence—a native Alabamian, he truly should have known better than to stop at that country store –and the guilt has substantially ruined his life. Blaming himself, he has suffered from the “three D’s—divorce, drinking and depression.”
Testifying in this new trial would cause him the pain of reliving the trauma but, his sister advises, might also bring cleansing and closure. Reluctantly, he agrees, and the reliving of those events is the main narrative of this novel.
Modeled, mostly, on Norrell’s Black Belt home town of Hazel Green, Alabama, the small town of Eden Rise in 1965 is agricultural, more than half black with almost no blacks registered to vote, and with all power in the hands of a few white men. The Selma to Montgomery march has occurred and the entire Black Belt is in an uproar.
Tom is the scion of the most powerful family in the town; they own the bank and 6,000 acres of land. His father, like his father before him, is probate judge and a racist but the times are changing fast. His mother, grandmother and sister are supportive, but Tom’s life in Eden Rise is essentially ended once he decides to testify against Kyle in the original trial. He is regarded by most whites as “traitor to his race” and becomes persona non grata, unwelcome in the local café, unable to get a haircut in the barber shop.
I will admit I approached “Eden Rise” with some trepidation; this was fictional material I thought might be thoroughly used up. This territory has in fact been covered many times, but the civil rights movement in Alabama, without question, was a cultural trauma of such magnitude, affected participants and observers so deeply, that writers of that generation are far from done exploring it.
No worries: Norrell writes smoothly, with surprisingly believable dialogue for a first novel. The action starts right away, with the actual killing, and he has added a couple of wrinkles that help.
The story is told in the first person, a good choice. We learn of Tom’s tormented emotions of guilt, rage and loss, from inside.
Norrell’s creation of the character Marvin Whitfield is most welcome. Marvin, Tom’s black bodyguard, brought from Detroit, is there to protect him from rednecks who threaten his life. Marvin is the grandson of an Eden Rise woman, and the identity of his grandfather is mysterious, but Southern literature is filled with such.
A tough customer who, as a juvenile, shot two boys in a gang fight, Marvin carries at all times a switchblade and a pistol. He is hip, strong, cool, listens only to R&B and Soul music, and often seems bemused by the rurality around him. He’s a bundle of controlled violence. The fight scenes in which Marvin protects Tom are beautifully done and would be worthy of a Robert Parker, whose fans will think of Spenser’s sidekick Hawk. In fact, Marvin eventually buys a BMW.
Norrell has generated an interesting cast, male and female, black and white, through all social classes and three generations. A debut novel, “Eden Rise” is a genuine success.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”