In a recent New York Magazine interview to promote his film, Top Five, Chris Rock said the only way to deal with the racial situation in America is to confront it head-on—not cover it with politically correct euphemisms that skirt the real issues. “You can’t even be offensive on the way to being offensive,” he said, noting that in some schools a black kid wearing red shoes must be referred to as “the kid in the red shoes.” In 21st-century America, race is the elephant in the room. Novelist Penny Mickelbury was aware of that five years ago when she began writing her new novel, Belle City.
Readers of crime fiction know Mickelbury from her popular detectives—Carol Ann Gibson, Phil Rodriguez, Mimi Patterson and Gianna Maglione—who have kept readers guessing and turning pages for more than two decades. Belle City is a departure from her who-dun-it fare. It marks Mickelbury’s foray into historical literary fiction. Clearly a labor of love, this meticulously researched and vividly imagined novel looks at the history of a well-known “beautiful city” in the Deep South, which bears strong resemblance to Atlanta, Georgia, where Mickelbury's ancestry goes back five generations. Although it begins with the onset of World War I, this is not a story that picks up where Margaret Mitchell’s racially insensitive Gone with the Wind leaves off. It’s a novel that confronts the complexities and tragedies of race head-on.
Belle City is an ambitious and provocative novel, presented in three parts that cover eighty-eight years between 1917 and 2005. The story within these pages is told through the eyes of two inextricably linked characters—one white, the other black; one male, the other female—who witness and experience all that history. They act and are acted upon by circumstances and situations that elucidate present-day tragedies broadcast over 24-hour news outlets, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Humankind, as T.S. Eliot tells us, cannot bear too much reality, so this novel may prove to be a difficult read for some. Although Belle City is a work of fiction, its pages sizzle with concrete details. For some, its perspectives, conclusions and understandings will be too hard to swallow. Others may find the construction of the novel a bit challenging. It is told in three parts but also employs three different literary devices. The reader first encounters a conventional narrative that uses authorial omniscience for some of the story. To cover material seen only by the African-American protagonist Ruth Thatcher, the novel switches to something like NPR’s “Story Corps” setting in which the elderly Ruth is being interviewed by her grand-daughter. A third point of view comes from the white male protagonist, Jonas Thatcher, who tells his version of events through a journal that covers the same time span. This is not a novel for anyone with a two-minute attention span. Anyone willing to spend time with it, however, will catch its rhythm just as one does with William Faulkner and Henry James—and be rewarded for having done so.
The novel’s three parts are described on the author’s website as follows:
PART ONE begins in Carrie's Crossing in 1917, on the eve of World War I, when Ruth and Jonas first meet as 12-year old farm children, and it ends in 1922 when Ruth's family makes a midnight run from Carrie's Crossing to Belle City, just ahead of a KKK attack led by Jonas's father.
PART TWO begins in 1926. Both Ruth and Jonas have lives and families—Jonas in Carrie's Crossing, Ruth in Belle City—that on the surface appear as separate as black and white but which are as connected as a shadow is to its human form. This section ends in 1945, as World War II ends and the foundation of a new order for the South is laid...even though the cement won't harden for a another two generations.
PART THREE jumps sixty years into the future, to 2005, when Ruth and Jonas die on the same day at 100 years of age, leaving startled descendants the task of unraveling and understanding their legacies.
The story alternates between Ruth's life and family in Belle City and Jonas's life and family in the newly wealthy and exclusive Carrie's Crossing. It is a distance of eight or ten geographical miles, but it is the vast and apparently endless chasm of race in America—then and now. Central to the Thatcher family saga is land. Indeed, land is central to telling the story of the South: Who had it, who stole it, who profited from it. Land and kin. It is a land dispute that split the Thatchers, forcing the Black Thatchers out of Carrie's Crossing and into Belle City, and it is a multi-million dollar land dispute a hundred years later that re-acquaints the Black and white sides of the family. Two gasp-producing wills and a century's worth of oral and written family history left by Ruth and Jonas tell the stories of the two families against the backdrop of two world wars, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Negro Migration, the Jazz Age, and into the new world of Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, for whom the thickness of blood and the tight knots of kinship ties have little or no meaning. Belle City is a novel of fiction, but it is a story of truth.
TAGS: Writers & Writing; Historical Moments, Figures & Events
I'm a storyteller whose background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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