A glimpse inside a Southern pocket of rural America that time seems to have passed by.
While the rest of the country was consumed three years ago by accounts of the trial of the individuals responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, author Hemphill (Leaving Birmingham, 1993) began an investigation of what he himself acknowledges may come to be nothing more than a footnote in American history: the burning of a black church in the small Alabama town of Little River by five white youths. At the time, a number of black churches in the South were mysteriously being torched and it is possible that Hemphill may have had his sights set on a much larger story involving the Ku Klux Klan or a broad study of racial tensions in the South in the post–Civil Rights Act era when he first got started. But neither outline can be discerned in this tale. For one thing, relations between blacks and whites in Little River, far from being hostile, are politely cordial if not openly friendly. For another, the convicted youngsters who set the church ablaze were hardly evil but were apparently so stoned on beer and pot that they seem not to have realized that the makeshift structure they were torching was a place of worship. Even the Klansmen, as boorish and malign as they are, have no provable connection to the crime. Hemphill even attempts to rope Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (set in a town not far from Little River) into the case. But that proves too much of a stretch by far. Whatever went down in Little River has the markings of an anomaly rather than an abomination.
But despite his unsuccessful hunt for bigger game, Hemphill provides some marvelous character sketches of Southern poverty and culture blended neatly together in black and white.