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Posts Tagged ‘black-white relations’


M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I–How southern children are taught to spell Mississippi.

That sentence and its explanation open Crooked Letter, Crooked LetterAnd Tom Franklin’s latest novel definitely takes the reader through a crooked path over a period of twenty-five years to right old wrongs and expose old secrets.

Larry Ott was always a loner, even before the traumatic event that shaped his life.  Not much that he did pleased his tough, hard-drinking father, and his dependent relationship with his mother didn’t help.  An outcast at school, he had but one friend, and that one had to be kept secret.

A young white boy in 1979 Mississippi, the last thing Larry could do or wanted to do was to befriend a black boy of his age.  But when Silas  Jones and his single mother moved into the rural town, there appeared to be a connection between the boys almost from the beginning.  Although Silas and Larry couldn’t be friends in public, they did maintain a secret friendship over a period of time.

Desperate to impress his father and his classmates, Larry accepted the offer from a popular girl in school to take her to the drive-in, strange as that seemed to him.  When they were together in the car, Cindy Walker told Larry she was pregnant and needed to be dropped off near her boyfriend’s house.  Larry was her cover, her beard.

Upset and unsure of himself, Larry did what she asked after she promised to meet him later that night so he could take her home, after swearing him to silence about their “date.”  But when he returned to the spot where he was supposed to meet Cindy, she wasn’t there, and she was never seen again. That began the complete ostracization of Larry Ott by the townspeople of Chabot and its surroundings.

Twenty-five years later, with Larry and Silas both back in Chabot, the story resumes.  It’s the present, and another young woman is missing.  The police have been dogging Larry’s footsteps for the past quarter-century, sure that he was responsible for Cindy Walker’s disappearance and death, and they are equally sure that he’s guilty this time around.

Larry has stayed in Chabot except for a brief stint in the army, operating the garage owned by his late father, visiting his mother in her nursing home; he is still an outcast in the community.  Silas left during high school for Oxford, was a star on the baseball team, and joined the navy.  Now he’s returned as town constable, and he’s ignoring the phone calls he’s received from his former friend.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a beautifully realized book.  It is a mystery, but it’s more than that.  It’s a picture of life in a small town in southern Mississippi, a place newly desegregated in its school but not in its neighborhoods or churches or attitudes.

I had never heard of Tom Franklin before, despite the fact that he won an Edgar award for his first book of short stories, Poachers.  Judging by his latest novel, he deserves to be read more widely.  His characters are real, their problems are real, and, as in life, there really are no easy answers.

You can read more about the author at: