In his debut novel, Brock weaves together two unexpectedly intertwined tales to illustrate the wide-reaching impact of the blues on American history.
Brock begins with the story of a young Charlie Patton and his family fleeing their Mississippi home in 1903 to escape racial persecution. Under the tutelage of a man named Henry, Charlie learned to play a harrowingly soulful form of music, coined “the blues.” Patton then devised a method of using rhythm as a tool for change, often altering political lyrics and subversively relying on the music to communicate his message. Of his guitar, Patton says, “This is a lock-pick to the back door of anybody’s home and soul.” At a time when blacks were not allowed as patrons in clubs, Charlie and his companions found their way through the door as musicians, reaching the ears and hearts of the masses. Patton recognized that those who wouldn’t listen to him speak for a minute would listen to his music for hours. Since many details of Patton’s life are widely disputed, it’s difficult to discern where the truth begins. Nevertheless, Brock’s story captures the essence of Patton’s character and his mission to revolutionize the South. Interwoven with Patton’s biography is the story of a young white man named Franklyn O’Connor, traveling in 2002 through the very same Southern land in search of his father. Instead, O’Connor meets an old black man who plays the blues and recounts his life story. It’s unclear if O’Connor is also based on a real person, but he serves as a witness to the old man’s retelling of the past and his continued experiences with racism in the 21st century. Chock-full of poignant passages and insightful dialogue about the deep, affecting power of music, the alternating narratives pass quickly right up until the end. Most chapters conclude with a cliffhanger, until a final cliffhanger indicates a sequel on the way.
A heartening read for blues fans as well as anyone interested in the history of American music and civil rights.