A White man recalls coming-of-age in the segregated South in Johnson’s debut novel.
Little Nickerson has lived in a Boston suburb for the last 40 years. One day, the septuagenarian gets a call from his sister, Allyn, with news of recent happenings in their hometown of LaSalle, Georgia. Municipal leaders have decided to remove a local monument to a Confederate soldier, allegedly modeled on one of Little’s ancestors, and replace it with a memorial to a local clergyman and civil rights leader. Little is happy to hear of this, although he’s concerned that the college professor chosen to speak at the event—a Black woman who grew up in the town—will be speaking out, in part, against Little’s own parents. The professor, Emogene Harrison, is the daughter of Bit, the maid whom Little’s family employed when he was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s.As Little thinks back to his days in LaSalle, the novel offers readers a portrait of a Southern town lurching unsteadily from the Jim Crow era to the fight for civil rights in the ’60s and of Southern families who experienced very different versions of the same events. Johnson’s eagle-eyed prose perfectly captures the mores and frailties of his characters and their community, as when he discusses how a local Black preacher, by leading demonstrations, forced local White ministers (including the Rev. McAllister, the father of Little’s best friend) to address the issue of segregation: “For the Baptists, integration led to miscegenation….The Episcopalians and Methodists vowed to keep politics out of the pulpit. A few Presbyterians, under McAllister’s leadership, qualified as liberals—a relative term—and agreed to make mild gestures of goodwill.” It’s a subtle book, overall, and it seems less interested in making political points than in exploring the dynamics between its various characters. Although the story moves through well-trod territory, Johnson manages to bring LaSalle and its people to life in a way that often feels revelatory.
An observant and immersive work about a society in flux.