Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
This glorious debut novel is one of an unexpectedly fine crop of recent and new Southern fiction. It confronts the tragic persistence of racism and the resilient, transcendent power of the human spirit. It is at once a story of young love, of traditions both poisonous and healing, and of murder. It is a brilliantly managed game played on a 100-plus year field whose goal posts are two hangings.
In 1860, a Black slave named Frannie Crow is charged by her mistress, Evelyn Anderson, with thievery and attempted murder by poison. Innocent Frannie was hung, and her son Amos was assigned the task of building a bench for the town square from the best pieces of oak and the best hardware that could be stripped from the gallows. The name “Square’s Bench” over time was replaced by “Liar’s Bench,” because of “its legacy of misfortune drawn from lies.” It is the multivalent icon of Peckinpaw, Kentucky.
112 years later, the Liar’s Bench continues to serve as a seat for both honest and deceitful promise making. Mudas “Muddy” Summers, daughter of the town prosecutor, experiences a very tumultuous 17th birthday. At an uncertain distance from the dizzying occurrences, she narrates her tribulations in a clear, powerful, and perfectly tuned voice.
Mudas’s mother, Ella, who had divorced her daughter’s father Adam over his infidelities, had then married an abusive bully, eventually moving with Tommy to Chicago and leaving Mudas feeling abandoned. Ella finds ways of still being supportive and moves back to Peckinpaw to be nearby. She works at various jobs including bookkeeping for a rich, crude good ole boy, McGee, who is running illegal businesses and blackmailing those whom he has pulled into debt or worse. When McGee’s incriminating business ledger for the Rooster Run disappears, his enforcer threatens Ella.
On Mudas’s birthday, her mother is found hung. The question, suicide or murder, echoes the question following Frannie Crow’s death a century earlier. If it’s not a suicide, the likely suspect is her present husband, who has beaten her on many occasions. Mudas can’t believe her mother would kill herself.
When we meet Mudas, her friendship with a handsome Afro-American schoolmate, Bobby Marshall, is underway. Readers learn about its genesis and acceleration into a full blown love affair. However, Peckinpaw is not ready for interracial romances – even in 1972. Bobby Marshall – polite, earnest, yet full of suppressed rage – has already been beaten for talking back (simply expressing an opinion) to his Caucasian neighbors who are in their own minds his betters.
Mudas and Bobby proceed cautiously in opening their hearts to one another and gauging their opportunities as a couple. Bobby encourages Mudas to search for that ledger, and in the process the pair discovers other documents. One reveals McGee’s illegal business and fingers a corrupt politician. Another, written by Frannie Crow’s son, reveals her innocence and leads to an understanding of the circumstances surrounding her death.
Another document will exonerate Frannie altogether, and we will learn that she is Bobby’s ancestor.
In the latter stages of the novel, the action becomes explosive and the suspense is wound tight. Those whom Mudas and Bobby would help bring to justice come close to ending the young lovers’ careers as amateur sleuths. On the positive side, the broken relationship between Mudas and her father begins to mend.
Liar’s Bench succeeds on many levels. As a coming-of-age story, it is splendidly realized and uplifting. As a portrait of a Southern community painfully stumbling into the age of racial and gender equality, it is penetrating and convincing. It is a high energy action tale. Ms. Richardson’s evocation of the sensory world is supremely effective: much of any reader’s delight will be rooted in savoring the sounds, smells, tastes, and fragrances that enhance her captivating vision of a typical Southern small town during two linked periods of its history.
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