Tag Archives: racism

“THE RISING PLACE,” by David Armstrong

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.

David Armstrong

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.

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This glorious debut novel is one of an unexpectedly fine crop of recent and *new Southern fiction. It confronts the tragic persistence of racism and the resilient, transcendent power of the human spirit. It is at once a story of young love, of traditions both poisonous and healing, and of murder. It is a brilliantly managed game played on a 100-plus year field whose goal posts are two hangings.



In 1860, a Black slave named Frannie Crow is charged by her mistress, Evelyn Anderson, with thievery and attempted murder by poison. Innocent Frannie was hung, and her son Amos was assigned the task of building a bench for the town square from the best pieces of oak and the best hardware that could be stripped from the gallows. The name “Square’s Bench” over time was replaced by “Liar’s Bench,” because of “its legacy of misfortune drawn from lies.” It is the multivalent icon of Peckinpaw, Kentucky.

112 years later, the Liar’s Bench continues to serve as a seat for both honest and deceitful promise making. Mudas “Muddy” Summers, daughter of the town prosecutor, experiences a very tumultuous 17th birthday. At an uncertain distance from the dizzying occurrences, she narrates her tribulations in a clear, powerful, and perfectly tuned voice.  liarsbench

Mudas’s mother, Ella, who had divorced her daughter’s father Adam over his infidelities, had then married an abusive bully, eventually moving with Tommy to Chicago and leaving Mudas feeling abandoned. Ella finds ways of still being supportive and moves back to Peckinpaw to be nearby. She works at various jobs including bookkeeping for a rich, crude good ole boy, McGee, who is running illegal businesses and blackmailing those whom he has pulled into debt or worse. When McGee’s incriminating business ledger for the Rooster Run disappears, his enforcer threatens Ella.

On Mudas’s birthday, her mother is found hung. . . .

To read the entire review, click here:Southern Literary Review — “Liar’s Bench,” by Kim Michele Richardson

*Other books of note include Laura Lee Smith’s Heart of Palm, reviewed elsewhere on this blog, and Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked, to be reviewed in late May.

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Lander Duncan’s Saga of Secrets and Skin

Once in a long while, the unexpected power of a book by an unknown author comes as a revelation. Such is the case with “Children of Secrets,” an autobiographical novel by Naples resident Lander Duncan that examines the debilitating cruelty of racial prejudice and the devastating consequences of family secrets.

The story opens on the Alabama campus of the famous Tuskegee Institute, sanctioned by Congress in 1881 as a Negro Normal School. It is 1939 when we meet the family of influential Tuskegee Chaplain Bryant, who successfully argues for Tuskegee to maintain an officer training program as a way of enhancing graduates’ opportunities.

Dr. Bryant’s daughter Abigail, a voluptuous woman at fifteen, is a flirtatious campus head-turner. She entices the extremely guarded CJ Duncan, the best hope of a poor Arkansas Delta family. When the imaginative, eccentric and light-skinned Abigail reveals that she is pregnant, chaos reigns until Dr. Bryant decides not to report CJ’s infractions. CJ graduates and receives his lieutenant’s bars. Married by Dr. Bryant in a private ceremony, the couple is banished to the impoverished Duncan Arkansas home.

Abigail has their first child, James, while CJ performs stateside military exercises. Shortly before she visits CJ on a military base, Abigail becomes pregnant by a white man. She passes this child, Lander, off as a premature child of CJ’s. Before CJ is sent overseas, Abigail becomes pregnant with a third son, Daniel.

The author vividly describes CJ’s service in Europe during WWII. CJ, an able and courageous leader of his all-Negro unit, faces unimaginable dangers defusing land mines. He is depressed by the high attrition rate of his company and how the Negro soldier seemed expendable. While his letters home form the basis of remarkable combat narratives, they don’t reveal his brief affair in occupied Germany.

Returning from army duty, CJ’s plans to use his GI Bill for medical school are blocked at every path. Merely another black man in the segregated south, his combat ribbons only aggravate – as they challenge – the white establishment. Finding work only as a redcap at the train station, accomplished and ambitious CJ becomes a dispirited, bitter man.

For voicing his outrage, CJ is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman, an accusation that leads to a lynch-mob death. Abigail and the children barely escape from their burning house. Fortunately, they had already made plans to flee KKK-infested Arkansas and resettle in a relative’s vacant home in Washington, Pennsylvania.

To read the full review, as published in the July 25-August 3, 2010 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 26-August 4 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Lander Duncan

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