A disarmingly sanguine first novel about the citizens, black and white, of a small Mississippi town as they prepare for the coming integration of their schools in 1966.
Cooper Connelly, a reformed alcoholic trapped in an unhappy marriage, runs Revere’s private hospital for whites. His father, a rich, segregationist state legislator, has installed Cooper as head of the local school board; but recognizing the coming of change, Cooper not so secretly welcomes the federally mandated integration of Revere’s black and white schools. Cooper’s professional counterpart is Reese Jackson, who runs the local black clinic. Born into poverty, the brilliant doctor remains bitter toward whites, despite his increasing wealth and his status as a god among his black patients. Spencer is particularly proud of his beautiful, cultured wife Deanie, who has decorated their antebellum home with exquisite taste and who dresses with understated élan. But their marriage strains under Deanie’s guilt at having injured their ten-year-old son Skippy in a car accident when he was a toddler, leaving him with a maimed leg. Deanie’s best friend is her neighbor Madame Melba. A fortune-teller from New Orleans who keeps her race ambiguous for professional reasons, Melba develops a surprising friendship with Cooper. Meanwhile, a routine investigation into the death of a white pulp worker treated in Cooper’s hospital for a gunshot wound raises public and deeply private questions about guilt and responsibility. When a local black minister is shot after an attempted restaurant sit-in, white citizens come to his support. Then Cooper is also shot, but for motives of personal vengeance, not race. Johnson has an unfortunate tendency to tease the reader with hints before revealing information about plot or characters, but to her credit, her empathy is so deep and evenhanded that her own racial identity remains a mystery.
In this engaging if oddly benign and probably revisionist take on the civil-rights upheaval, Mississippians cross racial lines with ease.