Three intersecting stories spanning a century revolve around racial tension in a small Kansas town.
The major plotlines in this book are divided by time but united by geography, as all three are set in the small city of Osawatomie, Kansas. One story—which functions as the spine of the narrative—begins in 1854, and is narrated by Sarah Dawson, whose Caucasian family moved from Tennessee to score some land opened up by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. However, tensions between those in favor of slavery and those opposed to it roil the area and force the Dawsons, who’ve never owned slaves, to take sides. Then the abolitionist agitator John Brown moves to town, spoiling for a fight and adding fuel to an already simmering fire. Sarah begins a romantic relationship with Brown’s son, Oliver, and soon becomes pregnant. In 1954, a young white boy, John David, navigates his school’s social scene, which has been transformed into a political tinderbox by the era’s racial conflict. Fast-forward to late 1960, as John David and his bigoted white friend Woody pick up a peripatetic African-American woman looking to find money to get her brother out of jail. Debut author Signor subtly constructs a world that’s infused with fear and volatility. In the 1954 storyline, for instance, John David has a close African-American friend, Jaimie, whose father languishes in jail, and another classmate’s house gets burned down. He also employs prose that describes his world with poetical grace: “You didn’t have to be a full-grown man or woman to know that things were stirred up. It seemed like just about everyone’s skin was on their faces a little tighter, their eyes quicker to dart around.” The story can be confusing at times, however, as the author switches narrative perspectives and time frames too often and too quickly. Overall, though, this is a bold work that’s richly and intelligently drawn.
A powerful historical novel that offers a remarkable meditation on the persistence of racial hatred.