Review by David Kinzer
I don’t know if you’re a writer, and if you are, I don’t know if you’ve ever told someone you’re writing about race. What I do know is that if you tell people this enough, you’ll inevitably get a response along the lines of “Why write about race? No matter what you do, you’ll just end up offending somebody.”
No one knows this better than Kathryn Stockett, whose best attempts to craft a paean to racial equality with The Help resulted in more than a few charges of racism. One of the most devastating critiques came from Roxanne Gay in The Rumpus, who wrote,
The Help is billed as inspirational, charming and heart warming. That’s true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of black people in 1960s Mississippi, overly sympathetic depictions of the white women who employed the help, the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect, and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring Civil Rights Movement.
I don’t care how many millions of dollars Kathryn Stockett has today; that has to smart.
I focus on The Help because it is superficially very similar to Janis Owens’s American Ghost, a fact that was no doubt on the minds of Owens’s publishers at Scribner, even if the book’s eerie cover implies that the in-house graphic artist never turned the title page. Both novels focus on racial injustice in the South, and both take as their protagonists white women with autobiographical similarities to their authors. Such parallels mark American Ghost as a spiritual successor to The Help, bringing that earlier novel’s narrative of white benevolence into the twenty-first century.
The structure of American Ghost is somewhat more awkward than The Help, and it lacks that novel’s friendly humor. In exchange, it offers a heated romance for its hero, Jolie Hoyt. The book begins as Jolie graduates from her high school in rural Hendrix, Florida and is set-up on a date with a graduate student, Sam Lense. In a matter of days, Jolie and Sam render Sam’s camper a conjugal trailer, but it turns out Sam’s been harboring a secret—he is in town to investigate a 1938 lynching that was touched off by the murder of his great-grandfather.
The lynching is the area’s sole claim to fame, even though we are told more than once that “it was too messy for anyone to mold into anything approaching heroic.” The story goes like this: Henry Kite was a black man living in Hendrix who shot Sam’s great-grandfather, a local merchant, likely over something as little as a pack of cigarettes. Later, the sheriff came to arrest Kite, and Kite shot him, too. But it was the white townspeople that Kite should really have worried about. First they rounded-up Kite’s mother, brother-in-law, two of his uncles, and his pregnant sister and hung them all. Then they castrated and lynched Kite, taking parts of his body as souvenirs.
This massacre is horrifying, and it is to Owens’s credit that it remains so despite numerous retellings. The event’s supposed moral ambiguity, however, is troubling if taken to be representative of the greater narrative of American race relations. Such are the perils of calling your book American anything, which, in Joyce Carol Oates’s words, suggests, “a mythic dimension in which fictitious characters are intended to represent national types or predilections.”
The lynching’s ambiguity is an expression of contemporary, usually white, anxieties—the same anxieties that spawn the “Why write about race?” question—but bringing such concerns into the past is both revisionist and subtly self-serving. Lynchings and race riots happened for numerous reasons, from Reconstruction-era power struggles to inner-racial relationships and false innuendo. Sometimes they had no provocation at all, like the 1943 Detroit riots, which started because too many people were trying to exit a city park on a hot day. And even though some riots and lynchings were set-off by genuine crimes, like the murder of Sam’s great-grandfather in the novel, if you wanted to make a generalization about lynchings or race riots in American history, it is that they happened because whites felt that it was time for them to happen, that it was time to kill some black men or women. Which isn’t to say that American fiction shouldn’t be able to discuss an exceptional incident like the Kite lynchings, just that any claims for typicality would ring false or even offensive in the broader context of a novel about whites fighting racial injustice.
But I digress, and I haven’t even addressed half of the plot. Sam gets shot in the back during his investigation, but he doesn’t die. From there, the novel jumps ahead years, though it’s unclear exactly how many. What is clear is that Sam and Jolie are no longer together. In fact, Sam has since had a child with another woman, while Jolie has become the Mayor of Cleary, the comparatively wealthy town next to Hendrix.
Jolie as Mayor is less compelling than Jolie the ingénue—we spend little time with Sam for much of this section—since she’s little more than a cliché of a successful woman. Assertive and productive with just a hint of self-regard, her Ralph Lauren skirt-suit disguises the loneliness she feels inside. In fact, there’s no indication she’s even kissed anyone since a rifle shell propelled Sam out of town. She’s not too dissimilar from The Help’s Skeeter or other, similar heroines, and the author always seemed more enamored with her than I felt was warranted.
Near the end, Owens waxes poetic on Jolie’s “implacable idea of right and wrong,” writing, “The sheer force of it made her striking in an ageless, mythic way that eclipsed modernity completely, made her seem like an old, forgotten goddess, a displaced Circe, capable of mischief and capricious devilry.” I wonder if a character so broadly portrayed as virtuous is the right choice for material as horrific as the lynching at the novel’s center. Perhaps that’s part of why she works so much better in the novel’s early pages, since mischievousness and purity of spirit make a better duo for dealing with a surprise engagement than for navigating racial strife.
The Help, no matter how much it relied on caricatures, at least featured black characters heavily. American Ghost barely bothers to investigate life on the other side of the race barrier. Its only two black characters are Hollis and Charley Frazier, who come to Hendrix to fulfill their father’s dying wish and retrieve two fingers which were cut off by a mob during the lynching. The quest for the fingers is the novel’s great MacGuffin, and it is, to be honest, better when the Fraziers and the fingers stay on peripheral, since Owens uses them less to explore what life would be like for blacks in a town that once had a city-limits marker signed by “YOUR LOCAL KKK” than to further reinforce her affection for the white cast. Along with the other characters, Hollis Frazier falls under the spell of Jolie Hoyt, so much so that when she asks this elderly black man with a fur-trimmed coat if he is a drug dealer, he finds Jolie’s “honesty unexpected and refreshing.”
Ultimately, the Fraziers represent all the ways that Owens patronizes and undermines the continued history of racial injustice in the United States. Their quest is immaterial, serving no practical goal but only a dead man’s peace of mind. There’s no suggestion that their lives have been harmed in any way by bigotry. In fact, even though no one in Hendrix is eager to talk about the lynching seventy-five years prior, there’s no current bigotry on display in the town. Jolie, for instance, appealed to blacks in her mayoral run by proposing affirmative action for city jobs, a policy that is not said to have inspired any controversy.
Hollis Frazier, the owner of a fried chicken chain, is very wealthy, more so than any of the main white characters, demonstrating again that Owens is not especially interested in crafting a recognizable model of the United States. Prejudice is the American Ghost of the title, but Owens doesn’t believe in the supernatural. At one point, Sam declares, “Beware of collective guilt. It’s a seductive notion. But it is a lie.” Of course this book warns against collective guilt; its message is that there isn’t anything to feel guilty about anymore.
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