Fate deals two African-American teens different hands in Northern Florida’s mean, segregated backcountry.
Wimberley (Strawman’s Hammock, 2001, etc.) paints complex characters against a backdrop of brutally violent racial oppression. In the early 1960s, the black section of Laureate, Fla., doesn’t even have running water. Seventeen-year-old Cilla Handsom spends most of her time there taking care of her “simple” mother, who can nonetheless vividly play any melody she hears on the piano. Cilla has inherited her mother’s gift, along with perfect pitch; she teaches herself to read and play music. No one notices until a cavalier, independent teenager named Joe Billy King moves to town. He and Cilla quickly become an item, and he informs the sole educated, caring teacher at their black school about her unique talents. The town is on the verge of integrating its educational system, and the band director at the white school needs a French-horn player; he agrees to take on Cilla as a student if she will learn to play the instrument. School integration proceeds despite the objections of Laureate’s white residents, largely thanks to Sheriff Collard Jackson, the one man not intimidated by wealthy bully Garner Hewitt and his two nasty sons, Cody and J.T. Cilla tentatively thrives in this new environment, and Joe Billy seizes an opportunity that will change both their lives. While stealing money from the collection tray at a church, he witnesses several men fleeing in Cody Hewitt’s truck just before the church is burned to the ground. Sheriff Jackson gets Joe Billy off the hook in exchange for his testimony, but the incident sparks a racial war that ends in acts of horrendous violence against both Joe Billy and Cilla, who has just won a college scholarship to study music. When one of the pair kills a man in self-defense, they must decide together who will take the fall and who will rise above it.
Truly heartfelt storytelling.