Luke May teaches local history--his lifelong obsession--at his old high school in Loring, Mississippi. Having been mentored by his hometown newspaper's publisher, a survivor of the civil rights turmoil, he now passes these stories along to students far too young to have experienced or, in some cases, even heard about them.
But when a long-lost friend suddenly returns to Loring, where years ago her family had been shattered by an act of spectacular violence, Luke begins to realize that his connection with her runs deeper, both personally and politically, than he ever imagined. Just children in 1962, they had no sense of what was happening when James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss provoked a bloody new battle in the old Civil War, much less its impact on their fathers' ambiguous friendship.
Once his daughters leave for Ole Miss, and with his marriage at an impasse, Luke's investigation of this decades-old trauma soon spills over into his own life. With his parents unwilling, or unable, to help him unlock secrets whose existence he'd never suspected, this amateur historian is soon entirely consumed by an obscure past he can neither explain nor control--a gripping reminder that the past isn't dead, or even past.
Once again Steve Yarbrough powerfully evokes--as David Guterson put it--"not only historical grief but the grief of our own time."
Yarbrough's tightly constructed latest is hobbled by the ordinariness of its characters and the situations they find themselves in. The story is told from the point of view of Luke May, a high school teacher and history buff living in a small Mississippi River delta town where he and his wife carry on a passionless marriage. During Luke's childhood, a family friend killed his wife, and Luke never fully understood the circumstances. After Maggie, one of the slain mother's children, returns to town as the new high school French teacher, Luke begins to unravel the murder, which coincided with one of the key moments in the civil rights movement. He also begins an affair with Maggie, providing a bit of tension as the reader wonders where the affair will lead and what Luke will learn about the shooting. The book's pacing and language are superb, and while Yarbrough (The End of California) is terrific at getting inside the head of his protagonist, what's inside isn't very special. (Jan.)
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January 25, 2010
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Excerpt from Safe from the Neighbors by Steve Yarbrough
"Just look what happens to poets," I used to tell my honors class on the first day of school. "Half the time they go mad. And you know why I think that happens? Too much truth distilled to its essence, all surrounding evidence ignored or discarded. And I'm not faulting them for that. They're just doing what poets are supposed to, and they've left us some beautiful works of literature, some of which have lasted for hundreds of years.
"When you pursue truth the way a historian does, though, you'll find that it seldom travels without escort. There are all kinds of accompanying data. And causation, in particular, is usually a complicated matter. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
"In 1944, the day after the Allies landed in Normandy, a woman who lived down in Belzoni gave birth prematurely to quintuplets, and all of them died within the hour. The Jackson and Memphis papers had already reported the invasion, and this poor woman had reason to believe her husband was there. Like women all over Mississippi--all over America--she was terrified, scared to death her guy might've died on a beach thousands of miles from home. Now what effect do you think her fears could've had on her pregnancy?"
A hand or two always went up. "Maybe it got her so scared it threw her into labor."
"It certainly could have. Things like that do happen. And so since there would've been no reason for her husband to storm those beaches if the Nazis hadn't been entrenched there, you might consider accusing Adolf Hitler of having helped cause the deaths of those babies, along with all those other deaths he helped cause, millions upon millions of deaths in hundreds of battles or in concentration camps spread across Europe.
"But you might look for other 'causes' as well. For instance, when I was a student up at Ole Miss, where I learned about these dead babies while working on an oral history project, I discovered this lady's father had lost his job in 1931 and stayed unemployed until 1942. The whole time she was growing up, she didn't have enough to eat, so by the time she got married she'd been malnourished for years, just like a lot of other Americans at that time, including my mother and father and quite a few of your grandparents. We're talking about the Great Depression, and who usually gets blamed for responding inadequately to that?"
Another hand in the air. "Herbert Hoover?"
"That's right. We won't worry about whether that's fair or not. We'll just add his name next to Hitler's." I usually started to move around the room at this point, walking over to the window to look out at the athletic fields where the Loring High football and baseball teams held their practices. With my back to the students, I'd say, "Of course, it turns out this woman had smoked all the way through her pregnancy and, according to some, drank hard liquor, too. It was illegal in Mississippi back then, but you could get booze from bootleggers, and more than a few people thought she did, though they weren't sure how, given that she was poor and broke. These days, knowing a lot more about the effects of smoking and drinking on fetuses in utero, we might want to add her own name to the list of folks 'responsible' for this. We might put her mom's name up there, too, because when she found out her daughter was pregnant, she told this troubled young woman to get out of the house, that she and her husband couldn't feed any more mouths."
I'd always turn around and face them before making the next statement. "Depending on whether or not you subscribe to a religious worldview--and I know most of you do--you might even want to add God's name to the list we began with Adolf Hitler. Because the temperature in the Delta on June seventh, 1944, was a hundred and four degrees, and nobody had air conditioners then. Women's bodies are already under plenty of stress during pregnancy, and immediately prior to delivery, this particular young woman displayed the symptoms of heatstroke."
The last suggestion never failed to make them uncomfortable: twenty-five bodies changed position, shifting in their seats, shuffling their feet. Nobody cared if you laid a few more deaths on Hitler's doorstep, and as for the young woman herself, well, she should have known better than to smoke and drink. But most of the kids in my classroom, black and white alike, had been washed in the blood just like I had, and while the blood had long ago washed off me, they were still covered with it.
"You know what you could do, though?" I'd say, stepping over to the board and picking up a piece of chalk that I started bouncing off the palm of my hand. "You could do what a good historian does. Note all the available facts, create as full a picture as possible, then conclude that on the day after D-Day, between two and three in the afternoon, five babies born to a nineteen-year-old woman named Mary Ethel Benson--whose husband, Charlie, was in France, where he'd win the Medal of Honor--died in Belzoni, Mississippi."
From the looks on their faces, you could see I'd sold them my argument, just as I'd sold it to myself.
In 1860 there were 7.24 slaves for every free person (all of these being white) in Loring County. And even though a lot of African Americans left the Delta in the 1920s and again in the years after the Second World War, the racial balance has remained remarkably stable. In 2006, the county was 70 percent black, while the town of Loring itself was 68 percent.
You could see this history reflected in the faces, bodies, apparel and accoutrements of the students arrayed in the bleachers for the opening assembly of the fall semester. About 70 percent were black, most of them dressed in standard-issue Wal-Mart clothes. The white kids, on the other hand, wore designer jeans, with the girls favoring what my twin daugh- ters, both at Ole Miss now, had taught me were called "cap-sleeve T-shirts," "double-layer tanks" and "peasant skirts." They ?carried brand-new JanSport backpacks, and the majority had driven their own cars to school, whereas their black classmates either walked or rode the bus. You could tell that many of the black kids, and a few of the white ones as well, had starch-heavy diets, though our free-lunch program tried to serve healthier fare. Except for a few athletes, who tended to flock together regardless of color, the races didn't mix much at assemblies. The white kids clustered high up in the bleachers, reversing the order that prevailed in movie theaters when I was a boy.
Our principal, Ramsey Coleman, walked to the lectern, directly under the basket at the far end of the court. He's a likable guy who took a lot of flak a few years ago for looking like Johnnie Cochran, folks asking if he'd found any bloody gloves lately. Like me, he'd recently turned fifty and had grown up in Loring.
While he welcomed everybody back and enumerated the exciting developments that had taken place since the spring semester--"we bought six new HP laptops for the computer lab, got new uniforms for the football team, replaced all the windowpanes y'all shot out and filled the holes in the walls with bulletproof plaster"--I found myself wondering what it would be like coming to school knowing I wouldn't see either of my daughters in the hallway between classes or eat lunch with them and their boyfriends (when they had any) like I had almost every school day for the last four years. A lot of things had just changed, and though Jennifer and I had known it was coming, I don't think we really understood how we'd feel when we drove off and left them up at Oxford. Each of us cried coming home, but while you might imagine their absence would draw us closer, if anything it seemed to push us farther apart. At first that surprised me, but after a few days it was starting to make sense. Up until a certain point, we'd done things together as a family, but then the girls got older, life got busier and we drifted into a kind of unspoken agreement that I'd do some things with them--teaching them to drive, listening to them complain about my colleagues or taking them fishing, back when they still enjoyed that--while she'd do others, like helping them buy clothes, showing them how to cook and reading their English papers. We couldn't share each other's loss because for a long time now we hadn't shared each other's pleasure.
"Two teachers left us over the summer," Ramsey was say- ing. "Don't act triumphant, though. Y'all didn't scare 'em to death--they just got better-paying jobs." Most of the kids laughed. Ramsey was fond of saying that only 2 percent of the students were really troublemakers, but since he first made that statement the phrase Two Percent Club had begun showing up on walls and in toilet stalls. Last year, somebody had spray-painted it on one of the buses after busting out all the windows, misspelling Percent as Procent.
"Mr. Pratt," Ramsey went on, "finished his doctorate and got hired to teach zoology up at Delta State."
Somebody hollered, "He never were nothin' but a old giraffe."
Ramsey jotted a note on his legal pad. Once assembly ended, whoever had made the remark would be hauled into the office. Ramsey laughed a lot and told jokes, but there were better people around to have mad at you.
"Fortunately, we've secured the services of Mr. Marcus Billings, a graduate of this very school whom Dr. Pratt personally recommended. Stand up, Mr. Billings."
Mark Billings stood and waved. He'd been my student seven or eight years earlier, and I distinctly remembered having called on him to answer the question of how many U.S. senators each state has. Looking stricken, he finally ventured, "Ten?" Ramsey had told me he'd hire him despite, as he put it, "certain deficits" in his Delta State transcript. Mark's main qualification seemed to be his willingness to accept the job.
The other vacancy had occurred the previous week, when we were up moving the girls into their dorm at Ole Miss. Our French teacher learned that her husband, an executive at one of the ConAgra catfish plants, was being promoted to the company's Omaha headquarters, and Ramsey left a panicked message on my cell phone, wondering if I had any suggestions. But before I could call him back, I received another one saying he'd found the solution.
Which, as it turned out, was "Mrs. Maggie Sorrentino," a trim, dark-haired woman in her early fifties. She wore a pair of white slacks and a purple silk blouse, gold bracelets on each of her wrists and a thick gold necklace. Earlier, pulling into the teachers' parking lot, I'd noticed a recent-model Mercedes, one of those sporty jobs that probably cost more than my house. It had North Carolina license plates, so I figured a rich relative must have paid one of my colleagues a visit and let whoever it was drive the car to work.