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Wed June 1, 2005
The life of a hard-working, yet unfortunate, Alabamian is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement in this historical fiction book.
By Don Noble
There is still some sentiment in academic literary circles that white authors should not create black characters and, for example, Christian authors should not presume to write about the Holocaust. The reasoning is that a member of one ethnic or racial group could not possibly understand the culture of the other group sufficiently.
William Styron received lots of adverse criticism for his novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and then Sophie?s Choice, in which he broke both of these so-called rules brilliantly.
Linda Busby Parker of Mobile has likewise ignored this injunction. Her novel, winner of the James Jones First Novel Award, tells the story of a fictional African-American Alabamian, Brewster McAtee, from young manhood until the time he dies of natural causes at a fairly ripe old age.
McAtee lives in a small south Alabama town, the fictional Low Ridge, Alabama. He is a young man in 1956, when the novel opens. Brewster?s father, Tom, is a violent drunk. His brother, Tee Boy, has been stabbed to death in a fight. His mother has drunk herself to death after a life of bitter unhappiness.
Segregation is intact and shows no sign of cracking. Brewster himself, however, is a fine, decent young fellow with some hope.
He works for an old man, Deak Armbrecht, a Dutch immigrant and fine cabinet maker who is not sodden with race prejudice.
Deak is teaching Brewster the craft, and Brewster is becoming an artisan, even a kind of artist in wood, and has the potential to rise in the world, if the racist world around him will let him.
The strengths of this novel are in the engaging characters. One comes to know Brewster, admire him, and like him.
He marries Marlenna Mixon, an educated woman and a schoolteacher, and is a solid husband and father. The Mixon family joins the McAtee family; Brewster buys some land on which he builds a home; and, when Deak Armbrecht grows a little older, buys the woodworking business.
The world around Brewster is changing fast and violently. The civil rights movement, in which Brewster is not much personally involved, has begun to gather momentum, and news comes to Low Ridge of the violence in Little Rock at Central High and then of the dogs and firehoses in Birmingham and the march from Selma and the deaths of Kennedy and King, and onwards.
These events are meant to provide a historical context for Parker?s novel, but I think they actually weaken it. In a historical novel set far away or long ago, the lives of the little people play out against the Civil War or the conquests of Alexander the Great.
In a novel set in our recent history, the unintended consequence, instead of rich historical context, is, unfortunately, predictability. We feel that we know what is going to happen next, and it injures the flow of the story.
Of course, when Brewster is persuaded to register to vote, and we are told about all the dry wood and sawdust at Brewster?s shop, the reader pretty much has to know what will happen.
One is reminded of the Chinese proverb: ?The nail that sticks up gets the hammer.?
Also, the white trash neighbor, Travis Peets, who lurks at the periphery of the action, will eventually cause Brewster misery; the reader is certain.
The emotional power of this novel is more evident in the painful everyday moments than in the larger, awfuller events of life and death.
Brewster works hard, saves his money, and wants what everyone wants. Parker shows the reader the realities of segregation: Brewster cannot try on a new hat in the white man?s store, nor Marlenna a dress in the white women?s clothing store. He cannot get a bank loan, or buy a new car, without having the pleasure of a new thing sullied by the humiliations of racism.
After seeing Brewster through his good times and his catastrophes, we finally bury him 30 years later among his loved ones, with the feeling that we have witnessed a life well-lived.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.