Durban weaves tale of lynching and its aftermath

THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS, A NOVEL

By Pam Durban

LSU Press, $23 paperback

A gun battle at a sharecropper cabin near Aiken, S.C., leaves a sheriff dead. Three suspects are taken into custody, a brother and sister and their first cousin. They are all named Long, all black and all doomed, because it is 1926 and Jim Crow is in full sway across the country. The Longs all wind up dead and buried in the same grave, but how they got there diverges from the usual script, and it’s that variation that allows Durban to deconstruct the event after the fact using the voices of the survivors and those who chronicled the case.

According to a report filed by an NAACP investigator, Leland Dawson, who came from the north and passed for white, the arrested woman was badly shot up but survived thanks to good medical care. She and the other two suspects were placed on trial for the sheriff’s murder and found guilty. That suited the new sheriff, Aubrey Timmerman, who wanted things wrapped up in a legal fashion. But then a black lawyer named N.R. Latham filed an appeal and got the male suspect off on a technicality. That was too much for the local sense of justice.

“Later on that moonless night the electric line to the jail was cut; a mob invaded, seized the Longs, drove them out of town, and shot them to death in front of a crowd of so many witnesses it was hard to believe the whole town hadn’t been there.

“Of the forty lynchings Leland Dawson had investigated, this was the worst he’d seen.”

Howard Aimar is a local insurance agent, father to Lewis and husband to Libba. The Aimars are upper middle class white Southerners of quality. They have a black domestic, Minnie Settles, who does laundry and cooks for them. Minnie’s son Zeke does odd jobs around town and has a horse and wagon in which he ferries passengers and freight. They are the prime storytellers in the book, as voice shifts from character to character in succeeding chapters.

Howard Aimar, good family man that he is, was at the site of the murders on the night the Longs were killed. What did he do? What did he see? Those are the primary complications that drive the story. The reader knows the key events in the first chapter, the question is how did it happen and why?

As Durban peels the onion a fact at a time, a picture of tragic events emerges. The good people of Aiken are not ruthless racists, but they have expectations of what will result when a black person harms a white person, and it does not include going unpunished. When the Longs had been tried and sentenced, that satisfied their need for justice, but the legal maneuvering by the black lawyer seemed like trickery. Not only did it get one of the suspects off, it promised to free the others as well. To the white residents of the town, this was a mockery of justice. Something would be done. None of them was struck with the irony of a group of people passing judgment and dispensing punishment outside the legal system. It was 1926 after all, and many of the men involved were World War I veterans, men who had seen and done too much killing already. They were men whose eyes didn’t smile when their mouths did. They had what Aimar called “soldier’s eyes.” After the Long killings, not one person who admitted to being there could identify any other person who was there. It was too dark.

Not everyone felt that way. Black residents like Minnie know what the lynching was about and also believe they know what had happened when the sheriff and two carloads of armed men, none wearing a uniform, arrived at the Long farm and surrounded the house.

When Dawson’s report reaches the New York newspaper, it sends a reporter, Curtis N.R. Barrett, to cover the investigation of the lynching that the S.C. governor has ordered. The reporter’s presence roils the atmosphere in Aiken and makes the Long killing witnesses nervous and defensive.

Durban picks apart the attitudes of both sides and leaves the final conclusion about the killings to the reader. She tells the story in restrained yet poetic prose that comprises some very fine writing.

LSU Press publishes an original work of fiction just once a year as part of its its Yellow Shoe Fiction series. It’s a small crop, but the fruit is worth the wait. Sometimes the book is by a relative unknown, but Durban hardly falls into that category. She is Doris Betts Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina and has an extensive list of publications to her credit, including short story collections and essays. This is her third novel. Yellow Shoe Fiction series editor Michael Griffith, himself a novelist and professor, has displayed a sure hand in his selections for the series, and The Tree of Forgetfulness is no exception.