Returning to 1950s Florida (Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands, 2002), her debut territory, McCarthy explores racial tension and redemption in Klan country.
Small-town Lake Esther used to be in Judge Hightower’s pocket, but now that he’s dead, control is up for grabs among powerful citrus growers, corrupt Sheriff DeLuth, and the town’s law-abiding citizens. Needing a reelection issue, DeLuth takes the two new kids out of school—fifth-grader Daniel, whose hair has a kink to it, and Becca, his younger sister, whose nose is wide: the kids must be part Negro. Florida law states that children with an eighth African ancestry or more are to be barred from white schools. Franklin Dare, the children’s father, explains that their great-grandfather was Croatan Indian, but DeLuth is unmovable. Enter Lila Hightower, the Judge’s daughter, home from a successful military career in DC to settle her father’s estate. When she discovers that DeLuth—whom she’s known since childhood and blames for her brother Louis’s death—is behind the children’s expulsion, she makes it her business to get them back in school. She starts by involving Ruth Barrows, the chain-smoking, owl-eyed northerner who runs the town paper. Ruth exposes DeLuth’s associate, the charlatan Billy Hathaway, who operates the local All White Is All Right organization, then writes sympathetic pieces about the Dare children. Lila, for her part, pulls all the political strings she can for the support of Fred Sykes, who’s running against DeLuth for sheriff. Meanwhile, young Daniel is building a sweet relationship with an old Seminole beekeeper.
Tangled in one too many subplots, McCarthy’s second still offers a vivid portrait of mid-century corruption, and of some brave enough to risk everything for justice.