“Crooked Truth,” by Kristine F. Anderson

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Kristine F. Anderson

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Crooked Truth, (Mercer University Press, 2020) Kristine F. Anderson’s outstanding debut novel, asks an important question: how much do we owe our family? Must we sacrifice all our hopes and dreams to accommodate them? The complex examination of one family’s struggle to answer these questions earned this novel a well-deserved Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction. The award is given annually by Mercer University to the best manuscript that speaks to the human condition in a Southern context.

Because Lucas Webster’s parents were killed in an accident when he was very young, he has lived with his grandparents on their farm in Crisscross, Georgia, ever since he can remember. He shares his bedroom with differently-abled Uncle Robert. The novel is set in the 1940s when family members with mental health issues were often hidden away, but Lucas’s grandparents refuse to send Robert to the asylum at Maysville, which has a terrifying reputation for abusing patients.

Fifteen-year-old Lucas’s feelings toward his Uncle Robert are conflicted. Born with Down Syndrome, Robert needs constant supervision. Although Robert is ten years older, he relentlessly dogs Lucas’s footsteps in a fashion that would annoy even the most patient soul. Take your eyes off Robert and he will play with fire. Literally. He will bring a dead chicken into the house, pretend it is sleeping, and tuck it into his bed. Is it any wonder Lucas’s feelings toward Robert range from love to resentment, from wanting to protect his uncle from abuse to wanting to clobber his uncle himself? Sometimes, Lucas is so embarrassed by the way people stare at Robert that he would like to run away and never return.

The family’s eldest son, Alvin Earl, charges in and out of life on the farm, disrupting their lives with rudeness, hostility, and violence. We are talking more than the usual bad manners. Alvin Earl is Robert’s forty-six-year-old half brother but never refers to him as anything other than “that boy.” At the dinner table, Alvin Earl scratches his head with a fork. Real classy. A gambler and heavy drinker, Alvin Earl elevates his abuse beyond mere words to physical assault not only of Robert, but also of Lucas and his grandmother.

A bright spot in Lucas’s life occurs when Amelia, an intelligent newcomer, arrives at his school and a wholesome romance slowly blossoms between them.

Another bright spot in Lucas’s life is his relationship with Little George, who serves as a substitute father, teaching Lucas a lot about farming and fishing. When a beloved dog disappears and is presumed dead, Little George comforts Lucas that the dog is in heaven: “I thinks all creatures has a place in the kingdom, Lucas. . . . In some ways I kinda like Noah and don’t wanna be anywhere in this world or the next where there ain’t no animals.” He also advises the teen that sometimes you have to “get on with your life and let go of the things you love.” Little George speaks from lived experience. His son is still missing in action overseas.

But Alvin Earl, who never works himself, doesn’t approve of keeping the elderly Black man with a gimpy leg working the farm. Paw Paw and Alvin Earl argue about what will happen when he inherits the farm one day. Paw Paw insists Little George isn’t “your ordinary nigger” because he has “some white blood in him.” Alvin Earl is not impressed by this argument:

“So do half the niggers in South Georgia. White blood don’t make them special—it just makes them a little smarter.”

“He’s a lot smarter and he knows every inch of this farm. He’ll get you a good price at the gin.” Paw Paw coughed a couple of times and tried to clear his throat. “Just promise me you’ll look for a nice girl and try to work with Little George.”

“I’ll look for a girl. You know I’ve never had any problems getting women, colored or white.” Alvin Earl chuckled in a mean way. “But I can’t give you any promise about Little George. He needs to move on.”

This conversation, which reveals the all-too-typical ignorant prejudices of the era, foreshadows trouble to come for the farm’s residents.

As Lucas’s grandfather grows more debilitated, Alvin Earl declares he will run the farm from now on. He forces Robert to chop cotton, and demands that Lucas drop out of school to work full time in the fields. Fortunately, Lucas’s grandmother insists Lucas will remain in school. She envisions him going to college, a dream Lucas shares.

A moment of crisis and violence follows the grandfather’s death. The novel’s ending is tragic and powerful and earned through careful plot and character development. It involves the crooked lie referenced in the novel’s title. Lucas ponders this lie long after it is told:

But not all lies are equal. There’s no such thing as perfect truth or absolute right. And sometimes families have to pull and twist the truth to survive and move forward.

This rich and moving novel doesn’t provide any easy answers for how a family should deal with a differently-abled adult, probably because there aren’t any easy answers—and especially because there weren’t any easy answers in the 1940s.

Kristine F. Anderson was recently nominated for Georgia Author of the Year for her debut novel Crooked Truth. She has worked as a freelance writer for national newspapers and magazines. She has a PhD in Communicative Arts from Georgia State University and taught high school English, as well as courses at Shorter College and Southern Polytechnic University, now part of Kennesaw State.

 

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