A sweeping, eerily resonant epic of race and violence in the Jim Crow South: a lyrical and emotionally devastating masterpiece from Charlie Smith, whom the New York Public Library has said “may be America’s most bewitching stylist alive.”
Delvin Walker is just a boy when his mother flees their home in the Red Row section of Chattanooga, accused of killing a white man. Taken in by Cornelius Oliver, proprietor of the town’s leading Negro funeral home, he discovers the art of caring for the aggrieved, the promise of transcendence in the written word, and a rare peace in a hostile world. Yet tragedy visits them near daily, and after a series of devastating events—a lynching, a church burning—Delvin fears being accused of murdering a local white boy and leaves town.
Haunted by his mother’s disappearance, Delvin rides the rails, meets fellow travelers, falls in love, and sees an America sliding into the Great Depression. But before his hopes for life and love can be realized, he and a group of other young men are falsely charged with the rape of two white women, and shackled to a system of enslavement masquerading as justice. As he is pushed deeper into the darkness of imprisonment, his resolve to escape burns only more brightly, until in a last spasm of flight, in a white heat of terror, he is called to choose his fate.
In language both intimate and lyrical, novelist and poet Charlie Smith conjures a fresh and complex portrait of the South of the 1920s and ’30s in all its brutal humanity—and the astonishing endurance of one battered young man, his consciousness “an accumulation of breached and disordered living . . . hopes packed hard into sprung joints,” who lives past and through it all.
FTC Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for a fair and honest review. Opinions expressed are mine.
Dark, dismal, violent, sorrowful–all words descriptive of Charlie Smith’s latest novel, Ginny Gall. In my opinion, this masterful work has entered the book world at the most appropriate of times.
Ginny Gall is a name in the Negro communities of 1920s-30s defining life as “the hell beyond hell, hell’s hell.” The years of the 1920s and 1930s represent the Jim Crow era and in choosing this backdrop for Ginny Gall, Smith has told us the story of a representative member of the African-American community in Chattanooga, TN, to paint an epic picture of life under Jim Crow laws.
Faint reminders throughout bring back blurred images of the Scottsboro Boys trials of nine African-American boys railroaded on rape charges. The reader is drawn to the character, Delvin Walker, who survives a rough and dangerous birth to move on and become an early reader and hard worker in a local funeral home.
Written as four books, Smith introduces his reader in Book 2 to a misunderstanding that takes Delvin out of what most in his situation would call a very good life and transplants him to riding the rails at the beginning of the Great Depression. Even as an adolescent, Delvin tends to ponder and think a great deal creating a story that is more pastoral than moving. In so doing, Smith paints epic images for his readers, often rich in theology and mesmerizing using lush and gorgeous language.
While the reading is difficult at times because of man’s inhumanity to man, it also reveals something about the world today. Have we really come very far with respect to civil rights and equality? Are we treating our fellow men and women humanely, regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, beliefs?
Ginny Gall is a call to stop and think about our society today. Those of us a certain age can only read about the Jim Crow era. Some of our older citizens can tell their stories rooted in that era. Do we want our society to go down in history because of its inhumanity to man? I think not.
Charlie Smith, the author of seven novels and seven books of poetry, has won the Aga Khan Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, Harper’s, the New Republic, the New York Times, the Nation, and many other magazines and journals. Three of his novels have been named New York Times Notable Books. He lives in New York City and Key West.
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