In this debut historical novel, a young white girl crosses social boundaries in South Carolina in 1947.
Thirteen-year-old Chloe Mason is part of an old Southern family that was once wealthy before the Civil War but is now struggling to get by. She sometimes follows her brother Caleb on hunting expeditions in the swamp, and at other times, she loses herself in books; both activities serve as distractions from her heavy-drinking father’s harsh behavior. She eventually befriends Big Jim, the reputedly “feebleminded” adult son of her neighbor’s black housekeeper, and she teaches him to read. Chloe knows that she has to keep the reading lessons secret from her racist father and neighbors; however, she later discovers a family connection between herself and Big Jim that defies the rules of her community. Belmont is clearly knowledgeable about her setting, and her strong prose vividly describes the rural atmosphere, with references to ceaseless humidity, veneration of Confederate-era ancestors, and local folk songs. She depicts the violent hatred that fills Chloe’s world with equal clarity; characters frequently use racial epithets and even threaten lynchings. However, the racism is presented primarily through the eyes of the white characters (“He don’t mean nothing by it,” Chloe says to Big Jim after her father whips him, “it’s just the way he was brought up”). Even though Chloe is young, it’s frustrating that she’s so slow to grasp that Big Jim is in far more danger than she is (“When it came right down to it, I was more entrapped than he was”). The story also leans on the white-savior trope (“That’s all I wanted. To free Big Jim”), and the childlike and “fragile” Big Jim, with his “certain purity” and willingness to follow Chloe’s lead, never becomes a fully realized character. That said, the novel’s resolution is largely satisfying.
A mostly solid historical novel hampered by its simplistic approach to midcentury Southern racism.