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From an award-winning and critically acclaimed writer comes a searing novel about a small Mississippi town trapped in a cycle of racism and violence, and the two boys who heroically defy tradition and seek an end to the injustice. Olympia Vernon's third novel, A Killing in This Town, is a taut, poetic masterpiece that exhumes a horrific epoch from the annals of the American South. There is a menace in the woods of Bullock, Mississippi, and not only for the black man destined to be lynched when a white boy comes of age. The white men who work at the Pauer Plant are in danger, too, but they refuse to heed pastor Earl Thomas's urgent message that the factory is slowly killing them. It is only when Gill Mender — a man haunted by past sins — returns to town that change seems possible. A transfixing and pivotal work of fiction, A Killing in This Town exposes the fragile hierarchy of a society poisoned by hatred, and shows the power of an individual to stand up to the demons of history and bring the cycle of violence to an end.
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The horrors of the lynch mob inform every paragraph of this viscerally moving novel that gives the backstory to the 1998 James Byrd murder. In Jim Crow–era Bullock, Miss., a white boy's passage into manhood demands a grotesque ritual: he must "go out to a nigger's house and call him out of it" and, with his fellow Klansmen, drag him to death behind a horse. Preacher Earl Thomas knows that he will be "called out" next, just as white Adam Pickens, soon to turn 13, dreads the part he must play in this imminent killing. Will these characters find a way out of the cycle of violence? Rejecting the conventions of chronology and character development, Vernon collapses time: memory, dream and portent are ever-present as characters wrestle with ghosts, guilt, fear and the chance of hope. A fugue of folk idiom, blues, biblical diction and surreal imagery makes for lots of atmosphere, but characters without much dimension: blacks are scarcely individuated; whites are mere repositories of cretinous hatred. As a result, while the stench of evil wafts nauseatingly from the page, the actual lives remain strangely distant. (Feb.)
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Earl Thomas tried to warn the white men of Bullock, Mississippi, about the lung disease the plant they worked in was causing. Now he knows it is only a matter of time before they come for him. The rite of passage for white boys in Bullock is to get their first Klan robe at 13 and then call out their first black man to be dragged through the woods until he is dead. Adam Pickens is almost 13, and his father works at the plant. Sickened by what he has to do, Adam is more than ready to listen to Gill Mender, who carries the guilt of his own rite. With the help of both communities, a strange kind of justice is achieved. The novel shows the debilitating cancer of hatred and prejudice and the beauty of the effort to stop the violence. In language reminiscent of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, Vernon weaves a powerful yet dreamlike story of our not-too-distant past. Elizabeth Dickie
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