Novel burns through darkness of civil rights era

  • Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2013 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, May 20, 2013 11:02 a.m.
'Leaving Tuscaloosa' by Walter Bennett
'Leaving Tuscaloosa' by Walter Bennett

“Leaving Tuscaloosa,” by Walter Bennett. Fuze Publishing, McLean, Va. 313 pp. $16.95.

Tension runs like a steel cable through “Leaving Tuscaloosa.” The air is hot and humid and so are the passions of the characters in this civil rights-era setting.

Chapel Hill’s Walter Bennett has created a thriller in his story of racial upheaval brewing in Tuscaloosa, Ala., just a year before the church bombing in Birmingham stunned a nation. The characters are no cardboard cutouts of black and white. Each has a smoldering fire, bursting into flame, to keep the reader going through a relentless 36 hours of racist activity, retribution and soul searching.

You will come to know the characters well, from the strong-willed Preacher John Gryce to the gentle and determined Resa, who’s doing everything to save her man. That’s Acee, a young man brimming over with thoughts of his place in life, of what he should do and what he must do. Does he step in where Preacher left off, does he save his family or does he live to see the future?

Among the memorable and haunting cast is Richeboux Branscomb, a white boy whose talent builds him up and slams him back down. An angry young man, who, like Acee, is searching and searching for meaning, he is tormented by memories of what and who he was when his sister was still living, when his family was intact, when his future seemed certain.

The girl trying to save him is Mem Cohane, a rarity in Alabama — part Jewish. She’s brilliant, athletic and attracted to Richeboux’s darkness and depth. But how much can she do for someone in so much turmoil?

Tuscaloosa at the time had a section called Cherrytown, all black, dirt roads, little electricity, home of forbidden pleasures, like Rosemont’s liquor house, frequented by both races. Rosemont keeps the place going by filling orders for free for the sheriff’s deputies.

Trouble comes in both colors, too. Raiford, Acee’s brother, is turned on to civil rights and is ready to fight the good fight. That he’s been encouraged by a white Jewish woman just compounds the hatred that racist sheriff’s deputy “Shug” Starnes has for him and all people who aren’t white, protestant Southerners.

From the very beginning, it’s clear that someone or several someones will die for a cause. There’s a speeding train of emotion about to collide with a truckload of rights and wrongs. This is a place where people do what they have to to survive, a place where just being black can earn you a beating from the bigots in charge.

Not to say there’s no trouble on the white side of town. Richeboux is like a lot of the other bored kids. He drifts into a group that does some not-so-innocent cruising. A group that buys beer from Rosemont and then tosses eggs at the Cherrytown residents, or runs over their mailboxes. Kids’ stuff, mostly triggered by ignorance and stupidity. Malicious, but it doesn’t really matter, because those people in Cherrytown aren’t really people at all.

Richeboux makes the second deadly throw of his life that first night — a well-aimed egg at a God-fearing man. No one, except maybe the reader, expects the consequences. And so it begins.

On that same night, militant Raiford is confronted by a deputy meaning to do him harm. Raiford’s quick on the trigger defending himself, and all hell breaks loose.

It’s a special kind of heat-of-the-night hell — the wide rings of repercussion blasting over many innocent people. Cherrytown’s people will all be punished for what Raiford did, especially the innocent.

Richeboux’s not innocent, not by any stretch of the imagination. But he is guilty of more than egg-throwing. He’s guilty of giving up on himself and the world, guilty of moving himself into a place he cannot escape, a place in his head that drags him into the red mud of Alabama and leaves him in the worst possible place at the worst possible time.

Where is the hope in all this darkness? It’s with two young women, one who stands by her principles and one who stands by her man — no she does more; she guides her man toward the light, though he is reluctant to turn away from what feels like his fate.

Somehow, Richeboux has managed to secure the attentions of Mem, the smart girl at his school. Mem is a young woman headed toward bigger and better things. She’s been accepted to an Ivy League school, yet she’s drawn to non-achiever Richeboux because she thinks she can fix what ails him. She knows when he’s lying, but can’t reach the depths of his darkness.

The promising Acee has Resa. once Raiford’s woman. Resa is smart and wise, and if she were a white girl, she’d be going to an Ivy League school, too. She and Mem attended a Y camp in D.C. last summer and were friends and roommates. Mem doesn’t really understand why they can’t still be friends.

Resa give Acee a place for his restlessness, a calm spot in her heart and soul. She sees things Acee is blind to, and she works hard to keep him safe and free.

Richeboux seems like so much trouble that his losses are inevitable. For the reader, sympathy wanes as he continues to struggle with his demons.

Acee, on the other hand, always works to do the right thing, despite what it might cost him. He’s got the strong influence of Preacher and the equally strong allegiance to his family — specifically to Raiford, his brother. He feels he is his brother’s keeper.

As one firestorm burns on, the hunt for Raiford becomes a blinding obsession for Starnes, a man who carries a gun and a bullwhip. As hard as the man with the plans, Rosemont, tries, the blazing hatred of Starnes, his deputies and a posse of ax-wielding racists turns all those plans to ashes.

Acee has to make heart-rending decisions. And he has to have help from outside Cherrytown.

Richeboux moves into a place where no one can find him. Even he loses his sense of self and turns to the ancient history of the place to hide, to strike, to burn a message into Tuscaloosa.

This novel, with its smoldering pace, characters who come completely to life and a setting in a time and place we’d like to forget, will leave a lasting impression. For people who were not here during the civil rights movement, it may seem like an insane exaggeration. For the rest of us, we know the truth that’s in the fiction. It was a terrible time, and we must continue to rise above.

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