A novel depicts a cross-section of the population of a segregated, Deep South town in a series of vignettes.
Many consequential events are happening during the summer of 1947, but for about 10 young, white boys in the small Alabama town of Riverton, their annual summer battle between the Ramar Renegades and the River Road Rangers is paramount. The clash, comprising boys from about age 8 to preteen, is held annually for bragging rights and involves tremendous inventive preparation. Murray Austin, the fat 14-year-old who leads the Renegades, faces intimidation tactics used by his school peers as a half-Jewish outcast. He exerts his superiority with his cannon, “a motorcycle inner tube he had cut in half and tied to the frame of a six-foot floor fan he found in the trash behind Curtis grocery.” The boys’ armamentarium includes homemade sling shots and the fruit of the ubiquitous chinaberry tree. The contest frames the book, which reveals an amalgam of Riverton locals. The effects of segregation influence every person’s experience. Simple language sometimes belies more nuanced thinking. According to Marsha Louise Armistead, Joyce Needham “comes from a well-to-do family and can afford to say what she thinks. I can’t...Maybe we should love all the Jews and nigras and a-rabs and bring ’em all into our homes and sit ’em down at our tables and wait on ’em. But that just ain’t the way things are.” Some characters do become more open-minded as they interact with new people of other races. The old, white recluse Ruth St. John meets an educated black man, Gayle Fremont: “What Gayle learned from their encounter was that even though Ruth was clearly a racist, she did not hate blacks.” Ruth continues to grow more enlightened in the work’s most vibrant arc. A lighter touch when attempting to provide historical context would have improved Green’s (After My Fall from the Treehouse, 2013) somewhat rambling novel, filled with tangents. A black character named Crayton Turner asks: “Whatchew white boys think about Jackie Robinson goin’ to the Majors?”; “What do you girls think about this Kon-Tiki voyage?” asks Pete Flournoy; and “What do you think, Pete, about Truman mixin’ up the races in the arm service?” asks Boyd, a butcher at the A&P. The future will bring tectonic shifts to Riverton’s daily life, but during this summer many residents are still waging old battles.
An array of vivid characters struggles to hold on to archaic ways in Alabama in this somewhat disjointed tale.