Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 Wrap-Up: The Best Books You Never Heard Of #3

American Ghost by Janis Owens

This is a powerful but not preachy novel about race and racism centered in a Florida swamp town famous for a horrific 1938 lynching and based on a true incident. This is a fascinating insider's depiction of the insular and entangled world of southern “crackers”—poor whites, often Pentecostal, some with Native American blood—and the strict, convoluted rules of engagement between poor whites and poor blacks. This is a story mingling the past with the present to depict the lingering cultural, economic, and psychological impacts of slavery. It's a look at how class and race overlap. And it is a revelation about ties that bind, and codes of silences, and the simple fact that ignoring something does not make it go away.

But it couldn't be about all these Big Important Things and still be a captivating novel unless it was also about individual people and their desires crashing up against each other. And so, it's also a love story, about a fierce and exceptional young white woman, Jolie Hoyt, the preacher's daughter, who is both proud and ashamed of her people and their ways. The young man Jolie falls for is not only an outsider, a Jew, and a college boy, but he is also harboring a secret past of his own: his great-grandfather, a shopkeeper, was shot and killed during the 1938 incident. With these four strikes against him, it's only a matter of time before he, too, get shot—though not killed, he is run out of town. Then, years later, he gets recruited to help an elderly black businessman who's got his own connection to the lynching—and who's headed back to Hendrix to settle some old wounds before he dies.

A Florida native and daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, author Janis Owens has crafted a page-turning story with compelling characters that dramatizes essential truths—about cruelty and injustice, and also about the deep human need for love, connection, and closure.

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