The Kansas City author’s second novel (They Tell Me of a Home, 2005) is based on the story of Emmett Till, a northern black boy who in 1955 “disrespected” a southern white woman, and paid for his impudence with his life.
When teenaged Clement—who’s visiting his mother’s sharecropper relatives, the Johnsons, in Money, Miss.—sasses a lady store clerk, Clement’s cousins fear the worst—as does their family’s stoical patriarch Jeremiah, who bears into old age the scars of a painful legacy of oppression, rape, murder and suicide. In a melodramatic narrative hamstrung by numerous flashbacks, racist monster Sheriff Billy Ray Cuthbert assembles a posse and “avenges” Clement’s offense. Jeremiah calls a “town meetin’ ” in his barn, and he organizes local black families into an “army” that challenges their white oppressors, aided by the (very strange) efforts of guilty white liberal Edgar Rosenthal, who—as an almost unbelievably awkward subplot reveals—means to atone for having wronged a black fellow college student decades ago. The “army” marches into Money, faces down the town’s white populace and, in an exceedingly lame climactic scene, receives the demanded “apology,” then leaves, persuaded “that the war was not over, but…also, now, that they could win.” The book is a sermon, weakened by theme-driven editorializing (e.g., “Clement entered the General Store with an entitlement unknown to Mississippi Negroes in 1955”). The (understandably) righteous anger is swollen beyond credibility by spasms of lurid violence and feverish fantasies of racial war. Even the most sympathetic reader will be turned off by Black’s appetite for overkill.
Shrill, sententious and maudlin. If you want to read a dramatic and persuasive retelling of Emmett Till’s tragic story, you’d do better to go to the history books.