A black ex-convict and a young white boy form an unlikely friendship in the early 1960s in this debut novel of racism and redemption.
In May 1963, a Georgia man named Redmond Williams is released from New York City’s Rikers Island prison. Seeking to avoid trouble and start a new life, he heads upstate where he sets up housekeeping in an abandoned railroad shack by a swamp on the outskirts of the town of Porter Mills, tucked between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River. Ten-year-old Caleb Walden is also drawn to the swamp, both by the memory of his father, who drowned there two years earlier, and by the need to escape persecution by his mother Ruby’s new boyfriend, Hurley Cobbs. When Redmond meets Caleb at the edge of the marsh, he is unwillingly won over by the boy’s generous openness, and the two form a mutual bond of companionship and respect. Unfortunately, the shiftless and deeply prejudiced Hurley makes it his business to drive Redmond out of town while at the same time risking Caleb and Ruby’s farm with his small-time criminal enterprise. Will an honest sheriff and the friendship of a fatherless boy be enough to keep Redmond’s past from destroying his future? Doty weaves a gripping tale and the two mismatched protagonists come to life on the page as realistically sympathetic characters. While Hurley is one-dimensionally evil, the author provides a glimpse into a painful childhood that offers some elucidation of the roots of his racism. The novel’s ’60s setting is skillfully evoked, from the names of penny candies such as Mary Janes and Atomic Fire Balls to telling quotes from President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Also well-drawn is the precarious state of late childhood, characterized both by simple scenes of rural enjoyment and the constant danger of cruelty from disrespectful adults. Side plots such as Hurley’s moonshine scheme and Caleb and his friends’ fears of a legendary old swamp woman add both humor and suspense. Frequent repetition of an offensive racial epithet may disturb some readers, but its use is realistic and clearly condemned in the context. All in all, a touching and satisfying read.
A compelling coming-of-age tale set against the background of mid-20th-century rural New York and the burgeoning civil rights movement.