On August 7, 1920, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in Marion, Indiana. A photographer who was there captured the crowd of avid, celebratory white people posing for the camera beneath their bodies. It is perhaps one of the most famous photos of a lynching in part because the excitement of the crowd was so evident. I imagine Laird Hunt must have looked at that photo several times when writing The Evening Road, his historical novel about a lynching in the fictional Marvel, Indiana in August, 1920. It is, after all, the clear inspiration for his book which focuses on the people in the surrounding area, not the lynching itself.
The first section of the book is narrated by Ottie Lee Henshaw, a white woman working for a lecherous man named Bud. As soon as Bud hears there will be a lynching in Marvel, some seventy miles away. He gleefully suggests they all head off to Marvel to see it. They pick up Ottie Lee’s husband Dale, and further down the road, Pops Nelson. This begins a strange pilgrim’s progress, with stops at a cat fish fry, car trouble, lots of drinking, a ride that takes them out of their way to Quaker prayer vigil. They even end up stealing a mule and wagon from a group of black people. Through this long peregrination, and yes, a good portion of it is even on foot, truths are revealed about them all.
The second part of the book is told by Calla Destry, a young black woman who was stood up by her older, white lover Leander, on a day when she really needed to talk to him. Her adoptive family is determined to get our of the area, afraid of what might happen. When she does not return on time, they end up leaving her behind. Calla mocks her family’s fear, saying they can’t lynch them all. That would be odd, since the St. Louis riots were just three years earlier when as many as two hundred African Americans were murdered. Massacres of African Americans were in recent enough memory, Calla would know very well the danger was very real. She takes the family car and drives to the lynching, a young black woman driving a sporty car in broad daylight into the crowd of people eager to see a lynching. The crowd is enraged and tries to attack her, but she escapes. And that’s just the beginning, she is reckless in her rebellion, and has a sort of reverse pilgrimage away from Marvel with many picaresque encounters.
The final chapter is narrated by Sally Gunner who sees angels before breakfast thanks to a blow to the head. Sally exists as a plot device and is a person out of time. She would be the white savior, but there is no saving those young men.
This would be a good book for a book group because there is a lot of grist for discussion. It has me arguing with myself. On the one hand, there are some powerful moments, such as when Calla is almost out of gas and has to go to a gas station and not one on their list of friendly stations. She is frightened, but has no choice. Luckily, the attendant is friendly and makes a point of sharing his view that the lynching is wrong. “Wrong wasn’t the word for what was happening…There wasn’t any word a cornsilk could day and make it sound right” And Calla feels such murderous rage at him. That felt incredibly honest and true.
But then there is the Quaker prayer vigil. This was a multi-racial prayer vigil, “filled to its fat gizzards with cornsilk and cornflower folks both. Maybe even some cornroots . . . and corntassels too. All of them sitting next to each other like they was one great big shook salad in one great big salad bowl.” There no reaction when white folks off to see the lynching come in and mock them and leave or when the speaker who organized bus loads of lynching sightseers comes in later. That is strange and unreal. As though they, like Sally, are not really people, but a device. Sally says it herself, “it was the future sitting there bowing its head”
And there is the thing that drives me mad about this book. Laird Hunt found his writing stifled by the racist language common in the past, by the hateful epithet we all avoid. So while writing he created euphemisms for race. Cornsilks are White, cornflowers are Black, cornroots are Native American, and corntassels are Asian. So, he could write about lynching, but could not use the words that animate that hate? Perhaps he is suggesting that when cornflower bring that specific word into our head, we become complicit, because we are bringing it from our experience. Are we supposed to feel guilt because we know what it represents? Or did he just decided to sidestep the truth?
Much about this book is excellent. There is no white savior which is something to celebrate, though the gas station attendant might think he is, we know better. Sally is trying to be. Her chapter is even called The Angel Runner. But she’s a device and an ineffectual one.
The prose in The Evening Road is beautiful, lyrical, and powerfully evocative. Here is Calla, introducing herself, “I stepped up slow from the river, like it was me not the good green water that had decided to follow its lazy ways.” Calla is a more oblique narrator than the frank and profane Ottie Lee. There is also this sense of the ridiculous in their adventures that is sometimes amusing, which does bring to mind the giddy crowd in that awful photo, the absolute ordinariness of these white folks off to witness such great evil. But so much is just wrong and it all comes down to the avoidance of reality–the use of the corn euphemisms, Calla’s indifference to risk which also puts others at risk. I assume that outside the covers of this book, there will be several who suffer from association with her.
One of the great things, though, about this book, is we just don’t know. This is not a book that ties things up neatly. We can imagine Ottie Lee revitalizing her marriage and becoming a braver, happier woman or not. We can imagine Calla running into the young man on the bicycle and forging a future or not. Do we want even want that to happen? There’s so much left to wonder about, and because I did come to care about these people, except for Sally who is utterly unreal, I do find myself imagining a future for them.