Monday, March 18, 2013

Leaving Tuscaloosa

I'm a sucker for a reference to my old stomping groups, so when I was at the bookstore in Southern Pines for Wiley Cash's reading, my ears perked up when I heard mention of an author coming in the next week or two, Walter Bennett, the author of Leaving Tuscaloosa.  Interestingly, I learn that while Bennett is a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Now we share all my sports loyalty locales.

The novel, though, is not a light, breezy Southern read. It's a painful story of racial discrimination and even hatred in the early days of the Civil Rights movement.  The story actually covers only a couple of days, but the events that transpire are earthshaking.  First, one of the main characters, Richebeaux (Bo) Branscomb, is the former high school pitcher who quit the team after hurting a batter, following the coach's orders.  Living with his mother and stepfather, alienated from his father, his options for the future look slim.  He is dating Mem, a popular girl from an affluent family who, he realizes, will be leaving soon for some prestigious university "up North."

The second story line follows Acee, a young black man who once played with Bo in the lumberyard when the two were young, before his father put a stop to their friendship.  Acee's brother Raimond has been stirring up trouble, unwilling to put up with the treatment of blacks in their hometown. Two deaths that occur the same night--the black minister, who dies of a heart attack after becoming the target of the white teenagers' pranks, and the deputy sent to Raimond's house to "check on him," shot to death--set both the white and black community into a frenzy.

The novel dredges up images of the segregated South at its worst, but it also manages to maintain a strong chord of hope in a handful of the young people who are willing to take risks to do what their conscience says is right. Walker manages to draw readers to characters who are complex, torn between loyalties, facing moral dilemmas with no simple resolutions. 

It's a story that will leave readers uncomfortable and restless, grateful for the changes that have taken place over the last seveal decades, hopeful that more positive change will come, even if it happens one friendship at a time.

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