Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
American Experience is a television history series covering a range of people and events in American history, documentaries which bring to life compelling stories that inform our understanding of America. We have to imagine timelines: March 25, 1931, a fight breaks out between white and black young men riding as hoboes. The train is stopped at a small town in Alabama and nine black youths are arrested for assault. The story complicates itself and eventually earns a title: The Scottsboro Boys.
Following Reconstruction, throughout the South, state and local laws mandated racial segregation with separate but equal status, or so said the Jim Crow laws.
The case of Virginia Christian is another “experience” and is compelling enough to rate alongside an American Experience documentary. She was mentally challenged and semi-literate. Born in Virginia on August 15, 1895, her situation was bleak: black, poor, and with a mother crippled by disability. She secured a job as a housemaid for Ida Belote, who was born eleven years before the Civil War and was a member of Virginia’s white aristocracy.
The protagonist in Ross Howell’s novel Forsaken is Charlie Mears. He’s an idealistic 18-year old young journalist covering the story of Ida Belote’s murder by Virginia Christian. This is American historical fiction from the Jim Crow decades, the late 1890s and forward.
The story is poignant in and of itself: Virginia is the first female criminal executed in the 20th century in the state of Virginia. And a juvenile offender.
This story, too, complicates itself because Christian, a black maid, was likely mistreated and abused by Ida Belote. In mid-March 1912, an argument developed between the two. Belote accused Virginia of stealing a locket and a skirt. Mrs. Belote hit Christian with a spittoon and the altercation escalated. Christian grabbed a broom handle and struck Belote on the forehead and in an attempt to stifle her screams stuffed a towel down her throat. Ida Belote died of suffocation.
There’s ambiguity about what transpired.
The rest is familiar history. Christian is arrested; a lynch mob looms. She’s quickly convicted and sentenced just five months after the crime. Governor Mann declines to commute the sentence despite a heart-felt plea to the Governor from Virginia’s mother, who signs her letter, “I am your most humble subgeck.”
Howell uses this story as the basis for his novel; his narrator, fatherless and orphaned Charlie Mears, covers the narrative, which becomes embroiled. He’s quickly aware that Virginia doesn’t understand the seriousness of her situation.
Virginia’s story, then, is one thing, and Charlie Mear’s inability to effect change is another thing. He’s not a white savior but seems, rather, incapable of heroic action. Given the Southern environment in which he lives and works, however, after the trial is over, after Virginia’s electrocution, Charlie decides to make his way as a civil-rights minded writer.
The novel divides, in other words, between the events leading to Virginia’s death, and the aftermath of the death. The most compelling part of the story is the drama of the murder, the trial, and Virginia’s death in the electric chair. It’s a compelling “American Experience.”
The aftermath of time and place is less expertly crafted and moves at a too hurried a pace, losing that previous strong sense of historicity. The events, that is, are removed from the historical stage and placed on the fictional stage, the latter requiring some suspension of belief that reflects a deep structural flaw in the novel.
Charlie falls in love with Harriet, orphaned by the murder of her mother Mrs. Belote. Harriett is also being sexually abused by her court appointed guardian. Up to this time, his closest friendship had been with a college friend who committed suicide because of the shame of homosexuality. He rescues an abused pit bull. He makes enemies of men in high places and in the novel’s second fastpaced half becomes the target of bigots, especially Walter Plecker, an influential champion of those touting the science of eugenics, those intent on purifying the races. He’s abducted and placed in the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. He escapes.
Secretly and undercover, Charlie, Harriet and her sister Sadie escape the South and travel west to Provo, Utah, and the Wasatch Mountains. Charlies learns the fate of his father and quits smoking. The novel ends with a pseudo-pastoral picnic at the base of Mount Nebo, a lake and sea gulls splashing about. Although the story is harrowing in recounting the 1912 Virginia Christian trial, the
aftermath is, again, a bit pat and without the resonance of the first half of the book, vectoring instead into romantic sensationalism.