Third-novelist Dyja imagines the first foray into battle of a real-life anti-lynching crusader.
Walter White headed the NAACP from 1931 to 1955 and investigated dozens of lynchings. The blond, blue-eyed White was able to pass as a Caucasian, though African-Americans could see his mixed racial heritage. Here, Dyja (Meet John Trow, 2002, etc.) has the 24-year-old arriving in the fictional Sibley Springs, Tennessee, soon after a 1918 lynching. His NAACP boss, the renowned James Weldon Johnson, has told him to “bring back the story.” Posing as a salesman, White quickly identifies the ringleaders in the hunting down, torture and burning of Cleon Quine, a prosperous Negro farmer who had shot dead two white hoodlums harassing him. He establishes a rapport with these mean ol’ boys and retrieves a souvenir from the lynching: Quine’s finger. White himself has hated Caucasians ever since his childhood friend, a white boy, joined a mob surrounding his Atlanta home. He learned a bitter lesson: “Niggers were prey animals.” Yet in this backwoods town, he feels whites may not be beyond redemption. Dyja paints a conflicted young man, forced into an unnatural camaraderie with these lowlifes, constantly fearful that his cover will be blown. One antagonist is Scipio, a Stepin Fetchit character who knows White’s racial identity and tags him as a troublemaker. Throughout, Dyja’s townspeople are well drawn while his treatment of the lynching remains heavy-handed. He writes of Quine’s Passion and Golgotha, though his own daughter says Quine was no Jesus Christ, cordially disliked by blacks as well as whites. White’s self-questioning becomes wearisome, and Dyja seems unsure what to do with him during his brief stay. His rescue of the posse organizer from drowning and his temporary abduction by Scipio appear contrived, as does his climactic escape from his own lynching.
Dyja does well in spotlighting a neglected civil rights activist, less well in dramatizing the nature of evil.