Real-life events of the burgeoning civil-rights movement of 1951 are blended with one white girl’s struggle to understand the murder of her black friend.
The South doesn’t get any deeper than Central Florida in 1951, especially for the McMahon family, northerners who came to Florida for the citrus business and have found a community both of cruel traditions and hope. Thirteen-year-old Reesa’s narrative begins with the brutal murder of her friend Marvin Cully. A surrogate big brother and employee of the McMahon’s, young Marvin is beaten to death by the Klan, who mistake him for someone else. Unfortunately, small-town Mayflower and the surrounding burgs are indeed Klan country, members coming from both law enforcement and the area’s most powerful families. The death of one black boy means nothing. Even the local FBI are in the pockets of, or at least sympathetic to, the Klan. The loss of innocence for Reesa (months tick by as Marvin’s murder goes unsolved) is played against the early struggles of Civil Rights as Thurgood Marshall visits the McMahons to investigate Marvin’s death. Reesa’s family becomes ever more involved as the Klan becomes more violent—the historically real bombings of black neighborhoods, synagogues, and Catholic churches in Miami that year are tied to McCarthy's characters, both fictional and real. When Reesa's little brother Ren is grazed by a Klan bullet, the McMahon family, with the help of Marvin’s parents, hatch a plan with the FBI to bring down the local Klan.
A strong debut though also flawed, most notably by inconsistency in voice. Usually, Reesa has the true perspective of a child; at other times McCarthy gives her an older, overly intellectual understanding of events—testament to the challenge of telling an intricate tale through the eyes of one unable to grasp all of life’s complexities.