“Eden Rise,” by Robert J. Norrell

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Montgomery Advertiser.

Reviewed by Mollie Smith Waters.

What would you do if your best friend were killed right in front of you? What would you do if the person who murdered your friend then turned his weapon on you and was attempting to take your life as well? Would you defend yourself?

That’s exactly what Tom McKee faces in the opening chapters of Robert J. Norrell’s new work, Eden Rise. From the opening lines to the last, Norrell crafts a gripping novel that not only opens our eyes to the injustices many African Americans suffered during the civil rights era, but also shows us a darker truth about what it was like to be a Southern white man who sympathized with their plight.

Born and raised in Eden Rise, a small town in west Alabama where the good ol’ boy system still reigns supreme in the summer of 1965, Tom McKee is the town’s darling. Valedictorian of his class, the captain of his basketball team, and heir to the McKee fortune, Tom has everything going for him, and his future as part of the social elite is secure.

Then, Tom goes away for college at Duke in North Carolina. There, for the first time, he begins to acknowledge the discrepancy between how whites and blacks are treated. Further opening his eyes is his friendship with Jackie Herndon, one of a few black students on campus and the standout basketball player for Duke.

Being from Virginia, Jackie understands the segregationist South, but his California girlfriend Alma clearly does not. When Alma convinces Jackie to join her in teaching at a freedom school near Camden, Alabama, for the summer, Tom gives them a ride, for he is on his way home.

What seems like an innocent enough endeavor, a friend giving another friend a ride, quickly turns into a nightmare. In south Alabama in 1965, racial tensions have already been running high, so the idea of a white boy giving two black people a ride is not one readily acceptable to most Southern whites.

When Alma asks to stop at a small gas station in rural Yancey County, Tom knows this is a mistake. Alma is too volatile, and when she demands to use the restroom at the store, the owner refuses to let her because she is black. A volley of cursing and accusations ensue and are quickly followed by the store owner opening fire on Alma and Jackie, who has gone to try to get her out of the store.

Realizing his friends have been hit by the shotgun blasts, Tom is shocked when the store owner begins shooting at him as well. Tom gets his pistol from underneath his car seat and returns fire. He wounds Buford Kyle, the store owner, in the leg, and manages to make safe their escape. Whereas Alma’s wounds are superficial, Jackie’s clearly are not, and as Tom races across Highway 80 to Montgomery to the only hospital in the area that will accept black patients, he fears the worse for his friend.

Unfortunately, Jackie dies, and while the situation is obviously an open-and-shut case of self-defense, Tom is charged with attempted murder, and from this point on out, which spans the majority of the book, Norrell shows how Tom’s choice haunts him and nearly tears his family apart.

Eden Rise introduces the reader to a host of complex, yet endearing characters, but the two standouts in this work are Tom’s grandmother BeBe, the matriarch of a dynasty that has seen its hey-day come and go, and Marvin, the black bodyguard from Chicago who is brought in to protect Tom after the death threats become all too real.

Growing up in Hazel Green,  Norrell is no stranger to civil rights issues, and he has written several non-fiction works about the movement and its major participants, including Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee, which won him a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. Eden Rise is his first foray into fiction.

A fast-paced, action-packed read, Eden Rise is a believable look at a terrible reality: the American South in the 1960s.

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