Skeletons in a Small Town’s Closet

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Janis Owens’ powerful new novel American Ghost recalls Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, the 1944 classic remembered, in part, for its brave portrayal of lynching. Owens’ book also tackles that barbaric custom, a form of domestic terrorism so entrenched in our nation’s culture that, even in the mid-1930s, Franklin Roosevelt refused to back federal legislation against it for fear of alienating Southern voters. Today, it’s quite easy to forget that mob violence was a not-infrequent part of American life in the modern era. It’s also easy to forget that lynching—in all of its weird, ritual horror—continues to inform our country’s race relations. American Ghost is a warning against such forgetting and an acknowledgment of the haunting national specter of racial violence.

Set in Hendrix, a fictional town in the Florida Panhandle, Owens’ novel begins in the summer of 1996. It’s the story of Jolie Hoyt, the daughter of a sprawling, quick-tempered clan whose family history is tightly bound to that of the town. She’s determined to escape the fate of her beleaguered foremothers, long-suffering women whose hopes of advancement were dashed by their poverty and prominent Native American features. But by her 18th birthday, Jolie’s dreams of deliverance have more or less fizzled out. Rejected by the Savannah College of Art and Design, she enrolls in the local junior college and starts to settle into the dreary slog of reduced expectations.

That slog, however, is disrupted by the appearance of Sam Lense, a Miami-born grad student at the University of Florida. A budding anthropologist, Sam claims to have come to Hendrix to study its Native American population. In truth, that’s only half his story. For though Sam seems, at least to Jolie, marvelously foreign—urbane, Jewish, leftwing—he possesses a secret connection to her small town’s past. Sam’s grandfather Morris, a Lithuanian immigrant, owned a shop in Hendrix in the 1930s. Known as “the German,” Morris seems to have existed on the town’s margins, an unknown, overlooked presence. Overlooked, that is, until one evening in October 1938, when he was shot dead by a black man named Henry Kite in a dispute over a pack of cigarettes.

In the days following Morris’ murder, Hendrix’s white community tracked Henry Kite down and slaughtered him, along with five wholly innocent members of his family, before defiling his corpse and hanging it to rot in the town square. Even in the rural South, 1938 was a bit late in the day for this kind of gruesome display, and the “Hendrix Lynching” earned the town a measure of infamy. By 1996, when Sam arrives on a secret mission to locate his grandfather’s forgotten gravesite, the incident is still a sore subject among locals, who mightily resent inquiries made by nosy outsiders into their dark history. Because Sam fails to disclose his family’s involvement in the lynching, he, too, is classed as a “nosy outsider,” with tragic consequences for both himself and for Jolie, with whom he’s fallen in love. In a series of events mirroring those of 1938, violence once again erupts in Hendrix, putting the kibosh on Jolie and Sam’s romance.

Twelve years later, when the novel’s action reconvenes, that romance is but a confused and distant memory. Jolie has been elected mayor of Cleary, Hendrix’s more affluent neighbor. Having climbed her way out of poverty, she’s finally (albeit precariously) established herself in the bourgeoisie by making herself useful to her county’s old guard. Her newfound respectability, however, takes a tumble with the arrival of another stranger.

When 75-year-old retiree Hollis Frazier, a successful restaurateur from Memphis, parks his Lincoln in front of Jolie’s mailbox she little suspects that Hendrix’s chickens have finally come home to roost. As she soon discovers, Hollis’ life also has been lived in the wake of the Hendrix Lynching. Before Henry Kite’s capture, Hollis’ father, Buddy Frazier, had been among the many innocent African-Americans rounded up and tortured by vigilantes seeking information regarding Kite’s whereabouts. During his interrogation, Buddy lost two fingers. Having heard rumors that those fingers were preserved as keepsakes of the lynching, Hollis has returned to find them, and bury them with his father’s remains. Through a series of coincidences, Hollis’ quest summons Sam back to Hendrix, revives the town’s penchant for violence, and forces Jolie to choose—once and for all—between her principles and her hard-won privilege.

Based on almost thirty years of research into the real-life lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida, in 1934, American Ghost is a taut literary thriller, as well as a wrenching meditation on the consequences of denying a dangerous past.

Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. His essays and articles have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine. Robert is currently at work on his second book, The Living End, to be published next year by St. Martin's Press, and an oral history of Texas legend Sissy Farenthold.