A debut social novel tells the story of how a murder drives a small Southern community to confront its deeply ingrained racism.
Louisiana, 1969. Nineteen-year-old Meadow Williams, a biracial sex worker with no knowledge of her origins, is required to come to the small town of Bumkin to work for the secret prostitution ring run by the white local sheriff. She won’t be a regular prostitute, however: Her job is to seduce local cop Quincy Tremblay Jackson, or “Quinine” as he’s known, due to his addiction to alcohol-based cough syrup. For this, she will be paid $100,000 and maybe find out who her parents were. Quinine is also biracial, and he owns a large portion of land that his oil-drilling white cousin, the local bigwig Bubba Tremblay, desperately desires. The racial dynamics of Bumkin have become especially sensitive because of a recent judicial order to integrate the schools, which has placed significant pressure on the local white scholar of black history, Dr. Sally Callahan. When Sally isn’t trying to make sure her brilliant but mischievous son, Bam, gets into college early, she’s fielding questions from the various local factions—civil rights organizations, teachers’ unions, segregationists—hoping her work will help prop up their various worldviews. “Integration was going to be a crash course in chaos,” thinks Sally. “Quickly. Everywhere. It was hard to see any winners any time soon. Integration was indeed overdue, but instant integration was going to be overwhelming. It wasn’t what anyone had expected. But then, who could have known?” When Quinine, the bagman for the local sheriff-run syndicate, is murdered and Meadow becomes the chief suspect, Sally and a few other progress-minded locals attempt to intervene, but the full story has roots deep in Bumkin’s past.
Eakin’s prose is sharp and expansive, weaving historical and political trends into the lives and conflicts of his characters. Here he explains the troubles of the white pastor of Bumkin’s Baptist Church: “Now southern religion and southern politics were becoming indistinguishable. Broadcast preachers…had literally stolen the microphones right out from under local preachers like him with a new evangelical message of neo-fundamentalism laced with a message of prosperity and inherently, racial overtones.” The author also has a talent for the concise, aphoristic phrase: “That’s part of the problem Sally,” one character says. “Southern manners can’t survive both integration and the Sixties.” While some of the tale’s language is unpleasantly old-fashioned—the narrator repeatedly refers to Meadow as a “mulatto”—the ambitious novel generally seeks to confront racism and show how foundational it is to communities like Bumkin. The book’s length and large cast of characters allow Eakin to explore the issue in great depth and from many perspectives. While some of the storylines are of less interest than others—the audience probably won’t be as infatuated with Bam as the author is—they intersect and inform one another in ways that will remind readers how connected we all are.
An engrossing tale about the integration of a Louisiana town.