Review by Philip K. Jason
The Rising Place, by David Armstrong. The Wild Rose Press. 198 pages. Trade paperback $13.99
The premise of this highly original novel is as follows: A young lawyer has moved to Hamilton, Mississippi to begin his career. His first job is to draft a will for a seventy-five-year old spinster named Emily Hodge. Emily has spent her life in this town. She is well-known, but she is clearly pretty much a loner. In the course of doing his job, David comes across a box of letters: these are love letters written by a much younger Emily to a man named Harry, who has chosen not to reply.
There is heartbreak and hope in each of Emily’s letters, especially since she finds herself pregnant with Harry’s child. As it happens, Harry is part Negro. And in this town during the 1940s, such a relationship was frowned upon, to say the least.
However, Emily was and is colorblind. She does not understand how race should make a difference in relationships or esteem.
Lawyer David makes the letters, along with several related documents, available to us, the readers. (Note that the lawyer’s first name is the same as that of the book’s author).
The revealed letters, providing the young Emily’s point of view about what’s going on in her life and the role that racial prejudice plays in it, constitute the story.
Through the letters, we learn that Emily is a woman of great passion; that she is a disgrace to her parents; and that she offers the truest brand of friendship to the very few friends that she has, some of whom are Negro. To most of the town, she is simply a sorry joke. Readers will find her principled, but more than a bit naïve. Her beautiful letters reveal her beautiful soul.
The temporal setting is wartime, a time when young men are called to serve their country. World War Two, in which Harry serves, brings his life to a crisis, and it also supplies an intermediary of sorts between Harry and Emily who would marry Emily if given the chance.
Though Emily is the filter for almost every detail that reaches the reader, and though she is a larger-than-life dominant figure given the book’s structure, the novel is populated with a great number of carefully drawn and highly distinctive characters. It is through Emily’s interactions with these others that our portrait of her (and of the town of Hamilton) deepens. Ultimately, we are assured that Emily really knows who she is and that she accepts her outcast destiny. Readers cannot help but be sympathetic toward her.
Many, including yours truly, will question whether times have changed at all. Today’s media regularly broadcast the injustices done to Afro-American citizens. However, this awareness takes nothing away from the book’s power and grace.
A particularly striking feature of the book is the author’s the presentation of the town’s Negro community, particularly its church and many of the individual worshipers. Emily is more at home with friends she has made there than she is in her parents’ house. Her few white friends, like Emily herself, are seen my most townspeople as misfits.
Author Armstrong provides a great deal of suspense through his shrewd pacing of revelations. He also includes several surprises before and after the final resolution of the plot
The novel has the musical feel of a tone poem; the brief, passionate letters sing out and echo one another, helping to make the emotional dimension astonishingly powerful.
Prior to being published, The Rising Place was made into a film by Flatland Pictures and won sixteen film festival awards before opening in both New York and Los Angeles. The film is available on DVD.
This review first appeared in the Southern Literary Review and is reprinted with permission.