BILLY by Albert French


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 Death, race, and injustice in the Deep South--in a deeply felt but crude first novel about the accidental death of a white girl that leads to the judicial murder of the black boy who killed her. The small town of Banes, Mississippi, 1937. White folks live in town, black folks live in the Patch. Proudest of the latter is Cinder, who has raised her son Billy Lee Turner on her own; her man Otis left for Chicago before Billy was born. But ten-year-old Billy has inherited Otis's ``wild-dog temper'' and carries a knife. Swimming in a pond in the woods with his friend Gumpy, the boys are attacked and overpowered by two older white girls, Lori and Jenny. Struggling to escape, Billy stabs Lori, who dies soon after. White vigilantes storm through the Patch and burn down a shack, despite the boys' speedy arrest. Even though mean Sheriff Tom concedes that ``that boy ain't got the slightest idea what he done,'' Billy is charged with first-degree murder, tried as an adult, sentenced to death and electrocuted. All of this is told with melodramatic frenzy (Cinder's eyes ``glowed the color of her burning soul'') and in a dialect so thick the characters sink under its weight. The all-seeing narrative eye roves so restlessly over a host of black and white characters that it never fixes on one, even Billy, for long--while minor but important characters, like Cinder's white father, get lost in the shuffle. Aside from a few moments of pathos when Billy is on Death Row, French's novel stays at the level of a lurid comic-strip. It is always distressing when a writer works at a harrowing portrayal of evil and misses by a country mile. For a fine treatment of similar material, read Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying (p. 167).

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-670-85013-6
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1993


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