This well-intentioned but seriously flawed eighth novel from McFadden (Glorious, 2010, etc.) seeks to honor the memory of Emmett Till, victim of one of America’s most horrific lynchings.
The details can still make you sick to your stomach. Fourteen-year-old Emmett, an African-American from Chicago, visited family in 1955 Mississippi; after the briefest of exchanges with a white woman, he was murdered by her relatives, who mutilated his body. His story has been told many times in novels and documentaries. Curiously, McFadden devotes fewer than 40 pages to the murder and its judicial aftermath. The long first section covers the years 1921 to 1940. The narrator (the voice of Money, the hamlet where Till was lynched) focuses on a black pastor, August, and his wife Doll, whose body has been possessed since her birth by the spirit of an evil whore called Esther. While McFadden writes convincingly of the body-soul relationship, she loses control of her family saga amidst melodramatic flourishes. Just two things are important. The first is that Doll’s granddaughter Tass will fall for Emmett. The second is that a child known as J.W. will die in a flood but return to life possessed by Esther, Doll having drowned. He will grow up to be J.W. Milam, the instigator of the lynching and a certified monster with a lust to kill, thanks to Esther. So it’s not his fault! McFadden’s bizarre interpretation cheapens Till’s story. After recounting the fateful incident at the grocery store and, touchingly, Emmett’s innocent flirtation with Tass, she hurries through the murder itself, carried out by J.W. and his weak-willed brother-in-law. A long, banal concluding section follows Tass in later life; Emmett’s spirit has attached itself to her protectively. And that wicked old Esther? On the 50th anniversary of the lynching, she returns…as Katrina.
A magical-realist treatment of Till’s story can succeed (see Lewis Nordan’s 1993 Wolf Whistle), but not at this level of distortion.