"Eden Rise," by Robert J. Norrell. NewSouth Books, 288 pages. $27.95
It is 1965, the height of the Southern resistance to integration, and 19-year-old Tom McKee is driving his best friend, Jackie Herndon, home to Alabama after a semester at Duke. There are two complications. He also is giving a ride to Alma Jones, a gorgeous girl with an attitude. Both Jackie and Alma are black.
They are passing down a barren country road in Alabama when Alma announces that she has to go to the bathroom. McKee drives into a small country store, where the owner, a pot-bellied redneck, accuses them of being Freedom Riders. McKee denies it and tries to get his friends to leave, but Alma insists on her legal right to use their bathroom. The store owner gets his shotgun, and in the ensuing struggle, Jackie is shot. Fearing the old man will kill them all, McKee takes his grandfather's pistol and manages to shoot him in the leg. Then, he and Alma drag Jackie into the car and take off for the nearest hospital that will take black people. Jackie is bleeding badly, and by the time they get help, he is dead.
The old man isn't, however, and McKee finds himself facing a trial and possible jail time. The man he shot is named Buford Kyle, who also faces murder charges, but nobody thinks a white man in Alabama will be convicted for killing a black man.
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By the time Tom gets home, he finds new problems. His father, who never wanted him to go to school "up North," is angry because his son has stirred up the racial unrest that had always lain dormant in the small town of Eden Rise. His mother defends him, and so does Bebe, his feisty grandmother who has always been sympathetic to black people. But his father is on the other side, and this causes a serious split in what had been a loving family. Then, their house is fired on, they receive death threats and their lawyer suggests bringing in a bodyguard. He chooses a black man from Chicago named Marvin Whitfield, who turns out to be a surprising choice, in more ways than one.
The real drama in "Eden Rise" revolves around the impact of forced integration on a small Southern town. The author, Robert J. Norrell, knows this scene well. A native of Hazel Green, Ala., he has written 10 books on the history of the South and on the evolving state of race relations in our region. Among them are a biography of Booker T. Washington, "The House I Live In: Race in the American Century" and the award-winning "Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee." This is his first novel.
It does not read like a first novel, however. Norrell is not only a historian, but a gifted storyteller, and he does an excellent job of bringing a large and diverse cast of characters to life. He has been compared with both Harper Lee and John Grisham, which is pretty impressive company, and he has a keen eye for the details of the places he writes about.
Here, for instance, is how he describes the store where the murder took place: "The store's unpainted plank walls were faded to a dull gray. Red tin signs advertising Pepsi Cola and Prince Albert smoking tobacco looked like they had been new when Granddaddy was a boy. The screen door hung partly open ... The heavyset white man at the cash register ... wore faded bib overalls, a stained tee shirt, and a straw hat ... Three days of white beard covered his face and a large plug of tobacco distended his left cheek."
This might seem like a much worked-over subject, but Norrell has a clear understanding of the people on both sides of an issue, which has never really gone away.