A young black boy’s death shines a spotlight on the Civil Rights-era South in this subtle, gripping racial drama.
It’s a tragedy when little Eddie Shaver, an African-American orphan, drowns trying to retrieve a fishing lure; but the fact that his white foster father Hurley Cutshaw stood idly by watching him die–and may have ordered him into the water–could make it a crime. So thinks Harry Weatherholtz, the white sawmill owner and retired sheriff who pulled Eddie’s body from the lake. Harry loves the idyllic countryside of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, but he’s troubled by the shadow of Jim Crow, still lingering in 1957. One aspect of its cruelty is a foster-care system that places illegitimate or orphaned black children, mislabeled as retarded to exempt them from schooling, with white guardians like Cutshaw who exploit them by hiring them out as laborers. Harry pushes the local sheriff and prosecutor to investigate Cutshaw’s culpability in the drowning, but the case hinges on the testimony of Eddie’s sister Ann, who is herself indentured to Cutshaw by the foster-care system. Harry’s pursuit of justice quickly runs up against the strictures of white supremacy and the judicial corruption that feeds off them. At the same time, it forces him to confront contradictions in his character. A hardened ex-lawman, Harry has always used his size and toughness to dominate other men. But he’s also a devout Christian; he realizes that his bullheadedness is part of the problem, and that, much as it galls him, conciliatory overtures may be the only way to deal with the racist Cutshaw and his thuggish associates. Arrowood’s limpid prose lyrically evokes the Shenandoah Valley landscape and the small-town life it nurtures without sugarcoating the racial injustices that permeate it. Through Harry’s story, he paints a nuanced portrait of Southern culture as it begins, slowly and painfully, to shake off the fetters of hate.
A moving tale of personal and social reform.