A young black man disappears on a hot night in Mississippi, and all hell breaks loose.
Neilson’s first fiction, a rather conventional southern drama of wrongdoing and redemption, isn’t quite up to her Pulitzer-nominated memoir, Even Mississippi (not reviewed), but it’s a strong story nonetheless, vividly told. It’s 1962, and Fannie Leary, the cook at the Persia Café, sees Earnest March drive away, leaving his white girlfriend, Sheila, sobbing in the parking lot. Not much happens in the small town of Persia, so local gossips and bigots are delighted to have something to talk about. Earnest, for example, seems to have vanished—until the day Fannie catches a glimpse of his decomposing body in the river and notes the unmistakable bullet hole in his forehead. She goes to look for his grandmother, Tchula Gaze, who’s also stone cold dead, though apparently of natural causes. It’s possible that Tchula knew her grandson had been murdered but told no one: in the rural South of the ’60s, there’s one kind of law for white people and quite another for black. Fannie, who’s white, isn’t surprised that the town sheriff and his lackadaisical deputies can’t find Earnest’s body in the river or anywhere else when they organize a posse. But Fannie knows what she saw and knows she’s not crazy. Soon others are disappearing, including her alcoholic, troubled husband Will and his father Amos. The FBI gets involved, which triggers a terrifying midnight visit from the Ku Klux Klan. Fannie fears for her own life, but she perseveres, and the strange truth comes to light at last.
Neilson’s prose verges on the overripe rather too often, but evocative detail and a powerful sense of place more than compensate.